VANCOUVER, B.C. – A B.C. Mountie found out the hard way last month that a wildfire evacuation order is nothing of the kind.
The fire near 70 Mile House in the Cariboo region of the southern B.C. Interior flared up quickly in the tinder-dry woods. It engulfed five buildings, including at least one home, and triggered an evacuation order.
But when an RCMP officer threatened to arrest a resident who refused to leave, he discovered that he didn’t have the power.
“The police don’t have the legal authority during a fire to force someone to leave their home,” says Sgt. Tim Shields, B.C. RCMP’s chief communications officer.
In other words, an evacuation order is no kind of order at all.
That is true across Canada, whether authorities are trying to clear a flood-threatened area or are racing to notify people of an approaching forest fire.
The only exception: minor children can be apprehended, though the grown-ups can stay behind.
“There’s nothing in the Criminal Code that I’m aware of that would give police the authority to physically remove someone just because that person is in danger, and to move that person against their will,” says Shields.
The Mounties quickly reacted to the confrontation at 70 Mile House, says Cpl. Dan Moskaluk, who’s handling police communications for the Tyaughton Lake fire, about 65 kilometres west of Lillooet, B.C.
Officers spoke to everyone involved, then issued instructions to local Mounties clarifying the limits of their authority.
The officers helping clear homes in the sparsely populated area threatened by the Tyaughton Lake fire understand what they can and can’t demand from these refuseniks.
A half dozen or more people have elected to stay behind. They’re advised that if they become trapped, it’s possible no one will come to their rescue.
“We’re seeking their tombstone information,” says Moskaluk, “getting their next of kin and then to the point of requesting about their dentist so that we can go back in there if God forbid, there is a death and we’re going to be identifying charred remains by their dental records.”
The tactic shocked one holdout, an hour away from being cut off as the fire approached his home on Marshall Lake, into changing his mind and leaving.
Moskaluk is somewhat sympathetic to those who want to stay behind.
He was posted in the Okanagan in 2003, the Summer of Fire. The Okanagan Mountain Park fire, which destroyed more than 200 homes in a Kelowna neighbourhood, came within 800 metres of his property.
That fire forced almost 40,000 people out of their homes, the biggest of two large-scale wildfire evacuations in the province that summer.
Many elected to stay behind, hoping the pump-fed sprinklers and garden hoses could help keep flaming embers from igniting their homes.
“We struggled with this in 2003,” says Kelowna’s current fire chief, Rene Blanleil.
“What we found was because we were evacuating on such a large scale … when we go door-to-door during an emergency tactical evacuation, we don’t have time to plead and to persuade people to leave.”
In some cases, such as in the fire that swept through the hamlet of Louis Creek, B.C., that summer, many residents had little or no insurance.
But Moskaluk says people feel they need to make the effort themselves to defend their homes.
“Maybe it’s a trust issue that people don’t want to leave their belongings and they want to stay and fight,” says Blanleil.
The fire chief says he believes some of those living on more remote properties were protecting more than just family memories – marijuana grow operations.
“Obviously for the property owners that live rurally and have something to hide, they’re not going to want to come out,” he says.
Moskaluk says once police gather that tombstone information, the refuseniks aren’t out of the minds of police or firefighters, a point the Tyaughton Lake fire’s incident commander made repeatedly at public meetings.
“He was pleading with these people, don’t put these first responders and these forestry workers under the added stress of knowing as they battle this fire, that there’s people whose lives are really at risk that are still sitting in the middle of it,” says Moskaluk.
One of the changes the came out of the record 2003 fire season was the creation of specialized structure-protection units that spring into action during interface fires – where wildfires encroach on homes.
These crews deploy industrial hoses, pumps and sprinklers to wet down buildings endangered by burning embers.
But while it was supposed to give homeowners some assurance their property was being protected, it may also have sent an unintended signal that it was safe for residents to stay too.
But these are professionals, says Moskaluk.
“These guys that are working it, they assume the risk,” he says. “The resident that’s looking out the window (thinking) I’m going to rely on them, they could die along with them.”
Dealing with a few firebrands is one thing, standing up to a firestorm like the one that razed much of a Kelowna subdivision is something else.
“If you’re in the direct path of a Rank 6 fire, the heat alone that moves ahead of it, we’ve had ranges of up to 2,000 degrees where it melted aluminium ladders,” says Blanleil. “It soldered plastic chairs to the lawn.”
Superheated air in some cases exploded homes before the fire even reached them.
Many Okanagan Mountain Park fire stay-behinds had escape routes, often to boats in nearby Okanagan Lake. But in remote areas like Tyaughton Lake, with one road in and out, options are limited.
Even in built up areas, a wildfire can quickly overwhelm people who learn belatedly about its power.
In Victoria, Australia, 210 people were killed when wildfires swept the state last February, many dying in their vehicles trying to outrun the flames.
“It was the radiant heat and the temperatures that killed them, not the direct flame impingement,” says Blanleil.
British Columbia has been lucky so far. No civilians died in 2003 – though three water-bomber pilots did – nor so far this year, and no one has needed rescuing.