Sutherland Road fire exposes unique rural firefighting agreement

Rural life in B.C. presents all kinds of challenges when it comes to wildfires.

Take the Sutherland Road fire, which has been burning for more than a week north east of the community of Fort Fraser, about 135 kilometres west of Prince George.

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The nearly 16-square-kilometre fire was first spotted on July 7 by a nearby resident, who called it in to the B.C. Wildfire Service. Initially, there was worry it would threaten homes less than 10 kilometres to the south, but the work of firefighters and some fortunate winds from the west have pushed the fire away from populated areas.

“The fire didn’t grow, we’re happy about that,” Dianne Raymond, who lives on a property on Becker Road, about eight kilometres south of the fire said. A retired middle school principal, Raymond has been sending nightly email updates to her neighbours about the fire situation.

“We’re nervous about things but my goodness what the people are dealing with in Williams Lake and 100 Mile and further south, I can’t imagine.”

Fires in the area aren’t uncommon. Since Raymond and her neighbours, a community of 20 families or so, are rather isolated, they’ve learned some basic wildfire techniques as part of an agreement with the B.C. Wildfire Service’s Vanderhoof zone office.

It’s a program which goes back 22 years, when the wildfire service entered into agreements with a handful of local community associations in the Vanderhoof and Fort St. James wildfire zones.

Raymond and her neighbours in the Becker Road Community Association have one such agreement, which requires annual training with wildfire service staff. The locals are given a small cache of equipment.

“We’ve got some backpack pumps and hoses and pickaxes.”

On Sunday, a lightning strike across the river from Raymond’s home started a small fire, but Raymond and her neighbours were able to get to it quickly.

After an initial assessment, a Wildfire Service-contracted helicopter arrived, scooped up some water from the river and doused the fire.

“It’s a small enough area that we can get together,” she added. “We’re like a little initial attack group.”

Bigger fires, like the Sutherland Road blaze, are always left to the professionals, she noted.

There’s now a restriction on vehicles in the southern part of the area covered by an evacuation alert, which actually ends at the next road north from Raymond’s property, Settlement Road.

She said she’s glad the restriction was put in place.

One of her neighbours has fields “up the road toward the fire” and she counted six vehicles in about five minutes drive by, “just to gawk” at the fire.

“It’s stupid,” she said. “They could get stuck. Plus they’re in the way. It’s people going where they shouldn’t be.”

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