Locals should be included in wildfire efforts, not shamed or ousted: BC United MLA

As many in B.C. are called out for defying evacuation orders, the province’s official opposition is taking aim at the BC NDP, saying when people aren’t confident the government will protect their homes from wildfires, they are not going to leave.

Kamloops-North Thompson MLA Peter Milobar says BC United isn’t saying it’s okay to break the law and ignore evacuation orders. Rather, he says it’s critical that communities, especially those in more rural areas like the north Shuswap, need to be woven into the response, not ousted.

“These are not typical residents in a heavily populated area like, say, a downtown Vancouver. These are people that work in the forest, generally speaking, they have their own equipment for the most part, they understand how to fell trees, they understand (dangerous) trees. They’re generational out there, and are trying to actually help,” he told CityNews.

“Many of them actually are trained at the same level as the fire service officials, and a lot of them have fought fires in the past. They may not have the most current certification because they let their paperwork lapse. It doesn’t mean they don’t have the knowledge and skill set to actually fight a fire and to be stitched into that overall attack. But when they’re not seeing the supports that they feel should be there, to think that people with that skill set are going to reasonably go and leave is not realistic.”

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Milobar notes many people also don’t have insurance, which leads them to make some of these choices.

“You can say they should have been insured or whatever, (but) they’ve probably owned their houses for years and years and years and years, everyone’s trying to figure out how to save money or whatever. Is it the best choice in the world not to insure your place? No, it’s not. But people do that, and then they start making more desperate decisions,” he explained.

The BC United MLA’s comments come a day after officials, including B.C. Premier David Eby and Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma, renewed calls for people to heed warnings and follow orders to leave when told to do so.

“I know that this is said every time that we are up here but it bears repeating because I cannot stress it enough: If you are under an evacuation order, you must leave immediately. This isn’t a suggestion, it is the law,” Ma said.

B.C. premier confronted by local about reported arrests in wildfire evacuation zones

Eby was in the Interior Tuesday to see the destruction left behind in some areas by wildfires.

BC Premier David Eby meets with officials and locals in Kamloops as part of a tour of the destruction left by wildfires in the Interior

B.C. Premier David Eby toured some of the areas affected by wildfires on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. In Kamloops, he met with officials and some locals. (CityNews Image)

There, the premier was asked why some people were being arrested or barred from returning to help those who stayed behind in areas cut off by flames when all they were trying to do was get supplies in.

“People that are trying to help are getting arrested by the police,” one person was heard telling Eby in Kamloops.

“Our whole upper community was lost and there’s people still up there trying to help, and they’re getting arrested? There’s police boats at the shore stopping supplies, fuel for generators, people in Anglemont running out of food, they’re trying to help boat stuff over. Where’s the logic in that?”

B.C. Premier David Eby stands in Kamloops during a wildfire survey where he is confronted by a local who is asking him why some people are being arrested when they are trying to help

B.C. Premier David Eby was asked by a local in the Kamloops area on Tuesday, Aug. 22, why some people were being arrested and resources were being blocked as they entered wildfire evacuation zones in the Interior. (CityNews Image)

Eby stressed that “trying to keep people safe is number one.”

When asked about the situation during his tour of the fire zone Tuesday, the premier doubled down on this messaging.

“I think I heard from a few people here about their anxiety, about what’s happening at home, about wanting to have information about the state of their homes and their communities, about people who have stayed behind, despite evacuation orders and the danger that they’re facing … For all those folks, this is an incredibly fluid, dynamic, and dangerous situation. The emergency response teams are doing the best they can in very challenging circumstances and my best advice to everybody is to listen to those emergency frontline responders. When they’re giving advice, ‘Please don’t go in this area,’ please don’t go in the area,” Eby said.

“One of the anxieties that we have is that people who are wanting to help, wanting to do the right thing are staying behind and then our firefighters are having to spend time — if it’s safe for them — to go in and try to get people out of those areas before the fire gets too dangerous and actually claims lives. A firefighter should not be trying to get people out of evacuated areas if people are able to move themselves, they should be focusing on fighting fires. That anxiety combined with people moving fire equipment, relocating fire equipment, stealing fire equipment, this is not assisting the fire effort.”

The premier says while many people may have the best of intentions, certain actions — like moving critical firefighting equipment — can have catastrophic consequences.

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