Nakusp volunteer firefighters mop up the remnants of the fire on the truck trailer. Photo: Tom Zeleznik

Nakusp mayor says logging truck fire shows need to review rules

Tom Zeleznik says fire got much worse because firefighters hands were tied

The mayor of Nakusp is calling for better co-operation between government departments after a logging truck caught fire on the highway north of the village last Thursday, sparking a forest fire that burned for days.

Tom Zeleznik says the fire got progressively worse while several groups of responders figured out who could tackle it.

“It’s very frustrating,” he says. “Here you have local resources able to tackle a fire like this, they have the training, but because of jurisdiction and liability, they can’t. Their hands are tied.”

Zeleznik, who’s also a member of the local volunteer fire department, was one of the first people on the scene of the fire, near the Halfway River.

A logging truck’s load started smouldering as it pulled onto the highway. After trying to douse the logs with an extinguisher, the driver called in to his head office.

“The fellow did everything correctly,” says Zeleznik. “He found a safe place to park, where people could get by him, he then called for help.”

The logging company contacted 911 and reported the problem.

Hours to respond

Zeleznik kept a diary of the chain of events that shows it took three hours from the first call by the driver until the fire was tackled by local volunteer firefighters — and another hour after that before the BC Wildfire Service began fighting the forest fire it caused.

That’s because the truck picked an inconvenient place to burn: it was outside the Nakusp Fire Department’s area, neither the logging company nor the local highways branch crews could fight it, and BC Wildfire Service crews don’t fight vehicle or structural fires.

Zeleznik’s log shows the fire was first reported just after 2 p.m. on Friday. He arrived about an hour later to help, in his capacity as a volunteer firefighter.

“[I] was informed that our local Nakusp Volunteer Fire Department could not help as it was out of their jurisdiction,” his notes state. “[I] was also informed at the scene the Southeast Fire Centre could do nothing until the fire moved into the surrounding bush/forest… [it was] stated fires on the highway [are the highways department] jurisdiction.”

Zeleznik’s further notes show that after receiving the okay from RCMP, he went back to a nearby scale/dump yard to pick up a loader that could remove the smouldering logs from the truck. When he got back with the machine, about an hour later, the Nakusp Volunteer Fire Department truck and crew had arrived, having just “been given permission by authorities to respond outside their jurisdiction to this scene.”

“When they got out there, they fought hard,” says Zeleznik. “They really helped out immensely, but they couldn’t put the fire out without a loader there to help rip the load apart. They soaked it down, but they couldn’t get down inside the load.”

That was about 5 p.m. — three hours after the first call came in — and the fire began spreading to the surrounding forest.

Zeleznik’s log shows that at 6:30 p.m. “helicopter and water bombers arrive to fight the forest fire … Forest fire is now well into the forest, with rocks falling onto the highway.”

A spokesperson for the Southeast Fire Centre says they had an assessment officer on the scene within 15 minutes of receiving a call, at about 3 p.m. Ashley Davidoff says that person immediately called in an initial attack team and aerial support to tackle the fire.

Davidoff says the initial attack or aerial crews do not suppress vehicle fires, but they did deal with the situation by the book.

“It was under control in the first operational period. In regards to initial attack success on a wildfire, it was very successful, ” says Davidoff. “That’s what we aim for. After the initial assessment, crews were launched.”

Aviation resources were called in, but it can take a while for the crews to gear up and get airborne.

Filling the gap in service

Zeleznik says bureaucratic delays made the situation worse.

“It sort of fell between the cracks, in my opinion,” says Zeleznik. “We have the resources. All our local fire department crew are trained, logging company crews are trained in firefighting, and highways road-building crews are trained. They’re well versed in all those procedures.

“If you look at the pictures, at the start it is just white smoke. White smoke isn’t going to start a forest fire. And you could have easily doused it down then. In hindsight a lot of things could have happened with this one.”

Though he understands issues like liability and safety have to be paramount, “we’re just asking for local resources to be able to be used in situations like this,” he says.

Zeleznik says he’s spoken to officials in several provincial departments about the problem.

“It pretty well has to start at the top, go to Victoria, and say we really have to look at this crack, this break in the service,” he says. “Maybe this is a good eye-opener for everybody.”

Zeleznik hopes fire officials from various departments will review this incident to see how it could have been handled more effectively.

“What you do is learn from your mistakes and prevent it from happening again,” he says. “Everyone is worried about liability, risk, and if you are trained enough, or are you going to get sued. The days of just ‘getting it done’ are kind of gone now.

“It’s kind of sad how far we have gone.”

The fire ended up closing Highway 23 for several hours last Thursday, and reduced traffic to single-lane alternating the next day.

At press time, the fire was still listed as being 0.6 hectares in size, and was considered “under control.” Fire crews were monitoring for hot spots.

The truck cab was saved, but the trailer was heavily damaged by the fire.

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The truck started a fire just north of the Halfway River, on Highway 23. BC Wildfire Service photo

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