In a province that routinely has major wildfires, emergency management consultant Jim Lamorte is surprised more people haven’t been killed.
Lamorte fears that could change given the reluctance of some British Columbians to obey evacuation orders to stay and protect their properties.
“I do hear people say from time to time they’re going to stay behind and protect their home,” he said.
“It may be tempting to do that, but their experience with wildfire may be no more than a campfire. … That’s not what they’re going to experience.”
What they will experience, he said, are falling embers swirling and surrounding them. And they’ll feel unbearable heat from as far as a kilometre away.
And they may feel the temptation to run to the illusory safety of a structure which could catch fire and ultimately become a tomb.
Some won’t leave
As of Friday, B.C. had 167 wildfires burning across the province and about 43,000 residents have become evacuees.
In Lake Country, in Riske Creek and the First Nation community of Anaham Reserve, some people have chosen not to evacuate.
RCMP Staff Sgt. Annie Linteau says if adults don’t want to follow an evacuation order, police won’t force them to leave.
“Should the situation worsen, unfortunately, we may no longer be available to get them,” Linteau said.
Bob Turner with Emergency Management B.C. said people who defy evacuation orders can hamper fire suppression work by forcing crews to work around them instead of treating the land as empty.
‘They were in over their heads’
Lamorte says this year’s fast-moving, wind-driven infernos remind him of wildfires that turned deadly, such as the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Australia that killed 173 people, and the 2003 Cedar Fire near San Diego that killed 15.
“This is entirely possible with our forests and wildfire history.”
Sandra Millers Younger experienced the devastation in California firsthand and chronicled it in her book, The Fire Outside My Window.
In Younger’s case, residents were given only a moments’ notice before the flames were all around them.
She and her husband managed to escape. Twelve of their neighbours did not.
“A number of people stayed behind to try and protect their homes,” she said. “Some of them were successful, others realized they were in over their heads because they realized you cannot fight 100-foot flames with a garden hose.
“Don’t try to be a garden hose hero. Don’t wait until it becomes really scary and then think you’ll be able to escape. Because you may not.”
Lost all possessions
Lamorte says training can prepare a person to protect property from an approaching fire. He recommends the provincial FireSmart manual for how to prepare a rural home from fire.
“But most people … don’t have those things in place and are taking extreme risk,” he said.
Lamorte said the most effective way to protect a home from wildfire is to keep flammable materials away from a structure — and buy insurance.
“If they feel [staying behind] is the only way to protect it, then they’ve taken some wrong steps along the way.”
Younger lost all of her possessions in the 2003 California fire and she understands why some would want to try and protect their valuable and in some cases, irreplaceable possessions.
“My advice is to focus on saving your life.”