A photo taken on Sunday by Alanna Janisse, who works for the Village of Zeballos, shows areas of the hillside charred by wildfire. The stability of the slope is uncertain following wildfires that were doused by rain in recent days.

Evacuees say the BC Wildfire Service should have responded faster to Zeballos flare-up

Rain douses fires across North Island, but Zeballos at risk of landslides

A Zeballos family is questioning the provincial wildfire authority’s actions after their home was placed under an evacuation order due to the risk of falling debris and landslides.

Ernie and Darlene Smith were ordered to evacuate their home on Saturday after a heavy rainfall helped quench wildfires that have been burning for weeks. The evacuation could have been avoided if firefighters had started to work on the blaze immediately after it started, Ernie said.

“Nobody was doing anything about it, and we’re wondering why, because the fire was spreading right across the mountain,” Ernie said. “Whoever made the decision made the wrong decision not to put that fire out right away.”

The Smiths, members of the neighbouring Ehattesaht First Nation, are concerned about whether they’ll ever return to their home in Zeballos.

“We don’t know if we could ever move back there, if we’ll ever feel safe living there,” Darlene said.

READ MORE: Zeballos evacuation order expanded due to danger of falling debris and slides

Debris hadn’t damaged any of the evacuated homes by Tuesday, said Alana Janisse, finance and administration clerk for the Village of Zeballos.

About 16 residents are affected by the evacuation order, which applies to 10 homes and some empty lots.

This map shows the evacuation zone in Zeballos, which now includes ten homes and some empty lots. The village expanded the evacuation order on Saturday.

After lightning storms sparked wildfires across the North Island on Aug. 11, the BC Wildfire Service said the small fire burning directly outside of Zeballos didn’t pose a threat to the community.

The wildfire authority also said the steep terrain was inaccessible to firefighters, and that bucketing by helicopters would potentially worsen the fire by causing fiery debris to roll down the hillside.

In mid-August, the village ordered the evacuation of six homes, and residents watched as the fire grew to an estimated 168 hectares by the end of the month, covering the town in smoke.

During that time, Ernie called for more resources to douse the flames, using Facebook to post video footage of the fire’s advance. Some of those videos were viewed tens of thousands of times online.

As the fire developed, Ernie also pointed to the risk of landslides, noting the danger in Facebook posts addressed to politicians including MP Rachel Blaney and MLA Claire Trevena.

“I wanted people to hear me,” he said.

On Saturday, the village expanded its evacuation order to include the Smiths’ house and a rental property they own, following a preliminary assessment by the provincial ministry of forests, which indicated that slopes around the village were potentially unstable.

The previous night, they drove to Zeballos from Campbell River – where they operate an art gallery in the city centre – to pick up their son Nathan and some of their belongings.

Their other son, Andrew – who works with the fire and ambulance services in the village – remained in Zeballos. He’s currently staying in the ambulance station, said Ernie.

READ MORE: Ehattesaht ‘in awe’ of wildfires near Zeballos

Ernie Smith, pictured here in his Campbell River art gallery, is concerned about losing his home in Zeballos to landslides. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror.

Meanwhile, a government scientist is working on an assessment of the slopes near Zeballos, according to Jeremy Uppenborn, a spokesperson for the provincial ministry of forests.

The ministry recommended that the village issue an evacuation order last week “based on initial observations and an abundance of caution for human life and safety,” Uppenborn said in an email to the Mirror.

He added that ministry staff are currently working out the terms of a private contract for a separate “post-wildfire natural hazards assessment,” said Uppenborn.

“That report should help to determine when people can return to their homes,” he said.

But he stressed that the village determines when the evacuation order ends.

“The final decision for when people can return to their homes will be up to the Village of Zeballos,” he said.

He also noted that terrain like the steep bluffs that enclose Zeballos tend to be hazardous.

“It is not uncommon for slopes of the type seen above Zeballos to be at risk from landslides, particularly with wet and windy environment that is typical of the area around the village,” he said.

The latest challenge for the tiny town comes after another record-smashing wildfire season torched over 1,298,000 hectares of land in B.C.

READ MORE: 2018 now B.C.’s worst wildfire season on record

On the North Island, more than 50 wildfires burned in a cluster of fires dubbed the Quinsam complex, filling the skies with smoke.

Heavy rainfall over the past several days – along with the efforts of firefighters – have finally brought those wildfires under control, said Rosalie MacAuley, an information officer for the BC Wildfire Service.

“All of the fires within the Quinsam complex are considered under control,” she said. “They won’t get any bigger.”

Firefighting crews are packing up and going home on the Island, she said, except at a 1,070-hectare wildfire at Tahsish Lake, where a 19-member unit was still working by Monday.

Wildfire authorities are “at the monitoring stage,” she said, adding that crews will also be working to rehabilitate land damaged by heavy machinery during firefighting efforts.

@davidgordonkoch
david.koch@campbellrivermirror.com

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