Emergency response firm owner shares his side of Burns Lake wildfire decision

Safeguard’s Jeff Kelly says he did not agree with BC Wildfire Service’s move to send his crew home

People from the Southside area of Burns Lake and others living near the Babine Fire Complex were hopeful last week when 29 tractor trailors, 54 staff and $20 million worth of equipment from an emergency management company arrived to help suppress the raging wildfires.

But three days after getting there, the owner of Safeguard, Jeff Kelly, says the company was told to go home, much to the outrage of residents who set up a blockade last weekend to stop the trucks from leaving.

“It was heartbreaking for us to drive past … knowing we had over $20 million worth of firefighting gear and equipment and the ability to do a lot of good,” Kelly said.

“I am sorry we couldn’t cross the ferry and help out your family members. A lot of my staff have been calling me saying they are heartbroken too, having to drive past the women and children knowing full well that a lot of their homes were threatened and we couldn’t do a lot of good.”

Pete Laing, the incident commander for the Babine Complex, had told residents that BC Wildfire Service officials and Kelly had worked to determine where to place his 10-kilometre high-powered sprinkler system to use water from local waterways to help douse the fires.

In a video posted to YouTube on Aug. 25, Laing said the only places Kelly deemed appropriate, based on the lack of supply, the environmental impact, how dense the population was, and other factors, were Ootsa, Francois and Tetsyie lakes.

“We came to the conclusion, in collaboration with Jeff, that it wasn’t really required,” Laing said in the video. “The one site that he had just wasn’t at threat, at risk.”

On Monday, Kelly said residents were confused and angry, and he never said that his system wouldn’t work and there wasn’t enough water.

“It was a blanket statement which is absolutely false,” Kelly said in a phone interview. “It was Pete Laing … who made the comment that there was not enough water and that the systems wouldn’t work – not myself or Safeguard.”

Kelly said he was only shown two ponds – three feet deep and 50 to 75 feet across – and said those didn’t have enough water for his equipment. He said he found three other options, but was told “the two ponds were the only deployments they wanted to look at at this time.”

“There are many, many appropriate systems that we could have used to help the residents of Southside and beyond. It’s the lakes district, there is a lot of water,” he said.

Kelly also said factors such as environmental assessments were not applicable, saying his system would not have caused one of the lakes to “drop a foot” in water level, as Laing had said.

“It seems BC Wildfire set us up to go home. Asking us to assess two small ponds and asking us to deploy right on the edge of the fire are both very impractical deployment options that would be quite obvious to someone both with or without fire experience.”

In response to questions regarding Kelly’s comments, Erin Catherall, fire information officer for the Babine Complex, said BC Wildfire had wanted to set up the sprinkler system in the area of Keefe’s Landing and Beaver Lake given the immediate wildfire risk at the time.

“BC Wildfire Service deferred to the contractors’ knowledge of his equipment to see if it was feasible for this system to be set up in this particular area,” she said.

“The owner of Safeguard said he was not able to utilize the water source that BCWS had identified that was adjacent to a paved road. There were no alternative water source options identified for this area.”

She added officials are evaluating the use of alternate water delivery systems that would better meet the area’s needs.

Safeguard is home now and does not have another deployment option with BC Wildfire Service. The main office is in Fort St. John, but the company is scattered across western Canada, so all the equipment has gone back to its various locations.

When asked if they would work with BC Wildfire again, said Kelly: “We’re proud of everything we have done this summer. I can only assume what BC Wildfire’s motivation was. What Safeguard could have contributed, was a mass water curtain to help protect a lot of those homes in the various areas.”

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