By Steve Hubrecht

Invermere Fire Rescue investigated a recent burn along the Canadian Pacific rail tracks at the south end of Invermere, but officials said they are waiting for a response from the railroad before they can complete their work.

“[The investigation] is not complete because we are still waiting to hear back from CP,” said Invermere fire chief Jason Roe.

Invermere Fire Rescue initially planned to investigate the burn mark on April 3, but snowfall the night before postponed the plan. By the morning of April 4 the snow had disappeared, so the fire crew conducted its investigation, spending several hours at the site.

Roe explained that Invermere Fire Rescue reached out to CP Rail, but has not yet heard back. Consequently the cause of the burn “is still undetermined,” he said.

“It’s the second close call we’ve had in our community,” said Mitchell-Banks, member of the CastleRock Estates FireSmart Committee. The other was a 2015 blaze that started when a tree fell on a power line, he said. 

Invermere mayor Al Miller echoed Roe’s comments, noting the District of Invermere has not received the report.

“As soon as (Roe) has his communication with CP finished, then we (the district) can report back. That’s probably going to be next week some time,” said Miller.

The Pioneer reached out to CP Rail for comment first on March 31 about the burn mark and then again last week about the district’s report. Salem Woodrow, a CP Rail spokesperson, said that a detailed response from the company would take time.

“Our folks are looking into it,” she said on April 7.

An Invermere resident walking along the tracks discovered the burn mark on March 30, while out for a walk on the western shore of Lake Windermere. It is a few hundred metres south of Walker’s Lane. Nadine Hale described the burn as about 10 to 15 metres by five metres in size and it spread uphill towards homes from the tracks.

“I’m definitely happy the fire department and the district have looked at it and everybody is taking it seriously. But I am keen to hear CP’s response and to hear about further mitigation that could be done to assure us that they (CP Rail) are doing their best for public safety,” Hale said April 7.

The CastleRock Estates subdivision is directly west of Hale’s neighbourhood and CastleRock residents are also concerned about the burn marks. 

Couple Kathleen O’Neill and Ben Mitchell-Banks sit on the CastleRock Estates FireSmart Committee.

Mitchel-Banks said the burn mark is alarming, but added “I’m not surprised.”

He said that sparks from trains and other rail activity have caused wildfires in the past. He pointed to comments made by federal Transportation Safety Board (TSB) chair Kathy Fox in October 2021. Fox said at the time that the TSB received 170 reports from rail companies about fires on trains or in rail right-of-ways in 2021. This was nearly 100 more reported fires than the year prior. Fox suggested climate change and the associated increase in extreme hot and dry conditions means more needs to be done by rail companies to help prevent possible wildfires.

Thankfully the blaze that created the burn mark by the tracks came at a time of year when the ground is wet, and seems to have extinguished itself naturally before it was even found, he said. 

“But if it had happened in early August, with a south wind, it would’ve spread quickly before detection,” added Mitchell-Banks.

CastleRock made extensive efforts to be FireSmart and was one of the first three neighbourhoods in the Columbia Valley to be officially recognized as a FireSmart Canada Neighbourhood. The other two neighbourhoods are Rushmere and the Akisqnuk First Nation. 

Still, Mitchell-Banks and O’Neill are wary about the potential for wildfire. The risk for CastleRock is rated as extreme, said Mitchell-Banks. That’s in part because the community is within the forest interface, in a part of B.C. with a hot dry, climate, and in part because CastleRock is bordered on one side by privately owned land covered in dense and overgrown Douglas fir forest, he said.

FireSmart practices recommend keeping tree density to 70 stems per hectare, but in the Douglas fir forest by CastleRock the density is 3,000 stems per hectare, he said.

“The ecosystem has never been like this,” said O’Neill. Historically it was treed grassland, but decades of fire suppression has now changed that, she explained.

In addition, not all CastleRock residents follow FireSmart principles as much as they ought to, said Mitchell-Banks.

“We still have residents that put bark mulch right up to and adjacent to their homes. Which is like putting kindling against your house. We still have challenges getting people to understand that,” he said.

Keeping Columbia Valley communities safe from wildfires is “a shared responsibility,” said O’Neill.