There has been a spike in suspicious grass fires in Fort St. James in April and Fire Chief Steven DeRousie is urging residents to not light grass fires as it is not just illegal to do so, but also dangerous considering the current dry conditions.
The Fort St. James volunteer fire department responded to 10 calls in April and they are all being classified as suspicious, DeRousie said.
“Suspicious means human caused without a definitive cause. It could even be accidental such as careless discarding of a cigarette or it could also be intentional. So, suspicious as we don’t know yet, because we don’t have the evidence to support one way or the other,” he said.
Crew responded to a fire on April 30 close to Sowchea Road, where someone dumped a big stack of pallets in the old quarry and lit the whole thing on fire. DeRousie said there was no party there and someone had dumped the pallets just to get rid of them.
“It is completely irresponsible to do something like that. First of all, you don’t light a fire and leave it. The wildfire act prohibits people from leaving a fire of any type. If you have to leave, you have to put it out,” he said.
He said the fire could have potentially caused a lot of harm as there wasn’t a very big clearing around it. Locals saw the fire from afar, he noted.
The fire was approximately 20 to 25 ft in height and 12 ft across. The fire department had two fire trucks on scene, one from Luck Bay and the other from the Fort. There were seven members on scene and they dumped a full 1,000 gallons of water onto the fire, to make sure it was fully out.
“The fire was pretty hot and was going very high,” DeRousie said.
Apart from the fire close to Sowchea Road, the fire department has had to respond to three suspicious grass fires on the walking trail below the Stuart Lake General hospital which DeRousie said were concerning.
“We have people who are in palliative care at the hospital and you can’t just up and move a bunch of people when there is a fire. It is a sad thing to see that somebody would light a grass fire right next to the hospital.”
On April 10, firefighters were called on scene to deal with the first grass fire under the hospital. The second call came in on April 11 and on April 15, crew responded to their third grass fire under the Stuart Lake General Hospital.
“I want people to know that the burning of grass in the District of Fort St. James is not permitted so if anybody sees an unattended grass fire they need to call 911 right away.”
He explained that once a person calls 911 to report a fire or smoke, and if the fire department gets there and it turns out to be a false alarm, it doesn’t matter.
“We would rather go and have nothing to do than not know about it, and then really have to scramble to stop something that is already bigger,” DeRousie explained.
He said even if residents get a strong smell of smoke and don’t know where it is coming from, if they call 911, then the dispatcher will be able to provide the fire department that information, and the department will be able to handle it from there. “Its best to call in,” he said.
Firefighters were also was called in on May 1, to control a fire at David Hoy Elementary School in the District. A trash can close to the school’s playground caught fire, DeRousie said. The fire was not contained in the trash can and some wood chips lying close to it on the ground caught fire as well.
On April 28, crew responded to a fire next to Nahouli creek just outside the edge of the town limits, which was burning some trees, but mostly grass and DeRousie said this fire had the potential to be an actual forest fire.
“There have been lots of little fires and it’s only a matter of time. If these suspicious fires continue then it is only a matter of time that we get a large one that becomes damaging to somebody’s property or home or both,” he explained.
Meanwhile, DeRousie said that some traditions and practices of burning grass used by farmers, First Nation communities and in agriculture need to be addressed.
“Some people burn their fence lines to clear it out as well right? So there is a lot of tradition there. The problem is that we are living in a changing world and we are going to have to change our ways because our environment has changed. The way we have built our towns has changed our environment,” he said.
DeRousie said that the community will be facing a potentially bad fire season because of the dry conditions. “We are going to have to change our ways and there are no two ways about it. We don’t have a choice if we want to live here.”
To report a wildfire or irresponsible behaviour that could start a wildfire in British Columbia, please call 1 800 663-5555 or (*5555 from a cell phone) as soon as possible.