Ombudsman's report suggests administrative improvements in Salmon Arm fire
VICTORIA - The ombudsman's report into the Salmon Arm fire provides helpful recommendations that the Ministry of Forests will put into action in fighting the devastating effects of wildfires, Forests Minister David Zirnhelt said today.
"The release of this report will also answer many of the public's questions about Forest Service activities during the fire and help residents reach closure on this devastating event," Zirnhelt said. The Salmon Arm fire broke out after a lightning strike on July 29, 1998. The blaze forced the evacuation of 7,000 residents, damaged 40 buildings and covered over 6,000 hectares. It cost more than $10 million to extinguish.
"I was in Salmon Arm, and I was impressed with the first-class effort made to fight the fire," Zirnhelt said. "My tour also showed me the enormous challenges faced by staff and confirmed the world-class reputation of B.C.'s wildfire fighting service."
Key recommendations in the ombudsman's report include:
-- increasing the amount of information available to the public regarding forest firefighting terms, specific firefighting tactics and the use of resources;
-- undertaking a review of various aircraft types and their usefulness in different firefighting situations;
-- conducting an in-depth study to determine what, if anything, can be done to achieve more accurate weather forecasts when fighting wildfires; and
-- assembling more thorough catalogues of heavy equipment before the fire season starts.
The Forest Service has prepared an action plan to address the report's recommendations. Some of the changes will be in place this fire season while others will take more time.
"I am particularly pleased the report finds that recommendations in the Price Waterhouse report into the 1994 Penticton fire have been implemented," Zirnhelt said. "Information flow was a concern on that fire. The ombudsman finds the public was kept well informed of the seriousness of the situation in Salmon Arm. We will, however, continue to search for new ways to provide the public with the most up-to-date and useful information when fire is burning near their homes.
"It is also important that residents who live in or near forested areas take action now to protect themselves from the devastating effects of fire. With specialists predicting more extreme global weather patterns, it is imperative that residents take advantage of Forest Service educational materials to protect their homes and property in high-risk fire areas."
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Jim Dunlop Director, Protection Program Phone: (250) 356-0085
Wendy Stewart Provincial Fire Information Officer Phone: (250) 356-5249
News editors and directors note: Recommendations and action plan attached.
Ombudsman's Report into the Silver Creek Fire
Ombudsman's Recommendation Ministry of Forests' Action Plan
1. The Ministry of Forests (MoF) continue its efforts to ensure the public is provided with accurate and timely information when major wildfires are being fought, especially interface fires (wildfires in close proximity to communities.)
We will continue to issue factual, up-to-date fire information directly to the public.
2. The MoF incorporate the concept of a community spokesperson/liaison as part of its standard operating procedure when fighting interface fires.
The Protection Program has and will continue to utilize community spokespersons and liaisons to assist in disseminating information and to gather useful local knowledge. This will be incorporated as a standard operating procedure to be used where appropriate by Incident Commanders.
3. The MoF continue to assist the Office of the Fire Commissioner in its consideration of a revision of the 10- minute Evacuation Alert to provide residents with more time to leave an area.
We will continue to work with the Office of the Fire Commissioner to assist them in finding an appropriate balance between the need to have people ready to move very quickly and what is operationally possible. It should be noted that a 10-minute alert does not mean that we wait until a fire is 10 minutes away before we evacuate but it is a precaution that can help to avoid panic and confusion.
4. The MOF revise its Fire Notice to provide greater clarity concerning the steps that residents should follow to protect themselves, their property and their belongings when wildfires are threatening their community.
We will revise the Fire Notice that we give residents on evacuation alert to provide better clarity.
5. The MoF continue its efforts to educate and assist the general public in gaining a rudimentary understanding of why a particular strategy is being used during fire suppression efforts.
We will take steps to improve the information we supply to the public by providing educational material to the Fire Information Teams, public information officers and media that contains more detail regarding fire suppression strategies and how different resources are used.
6. The MoF keep the general public reasonably informed of decisions made regarding tactics or problems that arise when the public is voicing concerns. For example, the Ombudsman believes that the public should have been provided with an explanation for the reduced air activity on July 31, August 1 and August 2.
A reduction in the air activity at certain times during this fire occurred to allow ground crews access to the firelines to continue control action. We will address this recommendation in conjunction with the action noted in recommendation 5.
7. The MoF continue to improve on its commitment to conduct thorough and timely internal reviews of all major fires and identify all problems that occur during fire suppression efforts.
We will continue to conduct internal reviews on serious fires and will increase the scope and depth of the reviews.
8. The MoF endeavor to provide more information to the public regarding its fire classification system in an attempt to avoid confusion.
We will develop more public information materials on common forest fire fighting terms, fire intensity ranks and further fire prevention and interface awareness material.
9. Wherever feasible and practical, MoF have the entire Overhead Team, including the Fire Boss, work on a single large fire.
It is our normal approach unless we are faced with very unusual conditions. In addition, we have adopted the Incident Command System which is used by virtually all emergency response agencies. ICS has proven in practice that it can cope with multiple incident situations when they arise.
10. The MoF revisit its central control of operations to ensure that this system is functioning properly and to ensure that it will conform with the proposed BC Emergency Response System (BCERMS) based on the Incident Command System (ICS.) The MoF ensure that MoF personnel have proper training concerning BCERMS and ICS.
We agree with the contention made by the Ombudsman that the 1998 fire situation could not have been handled any other way other than with the centralized resource allocation system and local decision making. The entire process is being reexamined with current discussions focussing on the high level of activity in the 1998 fire season. The review will look at functionality and lead to improvements if necessary.
11. The MoF undertake an in-depth study to determine what, if anything, can be done to assist the MOF in achieving more accurate weather predictions when fighting wildfires. Specifically, the study should analyze and identify when the "quick deploy weather stations" are needed and when on-site weather forecasters are required. Consideration should also be given to upgrading the remaining permanent weather stations throughout the province that are still using the old technology. Finally, the MOF's upper air weather systems (weather balloons with radio sound) should be fully tested each spring to ensure that they are functioning properly and that when delivered, these systems are accompanied by experienced operators.
The Protection Program is not aware of anything that can be done to increase the accuracy of global weather models supported by national governments. However, the use of quick deploy and other on- site weather technology will be examined but it should be clear that this will not improve weather forecasting, only the accuracy of the calculated burning conditions. Weather forecasting is a massive undertaking which involves the use of satellites, ocean stations and complex computer models which are far beyond the purview of the Protection Program.
12. The MoF be satisfied that proper procedures are in place at the fire camps to ensure that ground crews start at the times designated by the Overhead Team.
Ground crew start times are determined by the conditions on the fire such as weather, fuels, topography and safety. Start and end times are the sole prerogative of the Fire Boss as he is responsible for the lives of the fire fighters. Great care must be taken not to work the crews too long each day due to the very demanding and taxing working conditions. However in view of this, we will implement procedures to ensure Incident Commanders are monitoring start times and hours of work.
13. The MoF undertake a thorough review of the air support available to ensure that the most appropriate types of aircraft are used in relation to the myriad of topographical situations that firefighters can encounter when fighting wildfires in this province.
We have developed guidelines to help increase aircraft utilization and effectiveness in different situations. These guidelines include various fixed and rotary wing fire bombing aircraft and will be tested this summer and improved on in the fall.
14. Those recommendations of the coroner's report (November 29, 1991) referred to in this report be endorsed and acted on by the forest companies and the MoF.
The Protection Program has taken extraordinary steps to ensure the coroner's recommendations have been followed and has developed well-trained, physically fit fire fighting crews that are in high demand across Canada.
15. The MoF catalogue bulldozers and heavy equipment prior to the commencement of the fire season.
The Protection Program will undertake an extensive review of the catalogue system and standards employed with heavy equipment used in fires as soon as staff and funds are available. To monitor and catalogue heavy equipment to the same standards used with aircraft is a massive project and we will proceed when resources are available.
16. The MoF revisit its policy of deactivating main logging roads in designated extreme fire hazard areas.
The Protection Branch does not believe this is feasible but the recommendation will be forward to the ministry's Resource Tenure and Engineering Branch and Forest Practices Branch for review and possible implementation.
17. The MoF take the necessary steps to ensure that the communication system in the Salmon River Valley, in particular, the purple repeater system, is functioning properly.
There are over 300 repeaters in the province and we have requested that the ministry's Information Management Group, which is responsible for radio network maintenance, ensure this repeater is performing properly.
18. The MoF ensure that requests for Air Operations Bosses are filled immediately and the Air Operations Boss be put on standby in cases of wildfires that have the potential to become major wildfires.
We will continue to designate an air boss on major project fires when they are required. 1999 procedures include criteria for air bosses and rotary wing specialists to be put on standby. Changes to this specific procedure were implemented following an overhead team meeting in the fall of 1998.
19. The MoF address the need for greater accuracy in its documentation preparation through future training sessions of MoF staff.
We have introduced this topic into training material used for fire officer and crew leader training courses.
20. The MoF consider developing guidelines on determining fire guard width.
We disagree with this recommendation. Fire guard width is a function of several geographic, fuel, fire behaviour and control variables. Fire guards and their uses are covered in training material used in B.C. and many other agencies. We will continue to use this training material and incorporate the table suggested in the report.