By Steve Hubrecht

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Wildland fire officials are reminding Columbia Valley residents and visitors to please keep clear of firefighter operations, be they on land, water or air.

Obstruction of firefighting operations near Burns Lake, B.C., by people riding ATVs and flying drones, made headlines a few weeks ago, when those ATVs and drones interfered with firefighting efforts, and in some cases forced firefighters to halt. 

Anecdotal reports of similar occurrences happening here in the Columbia Valley —  by boats on Lake Windermere and by dirt bikers heading up the Bruce Creek — and interfering with firefighters battling the Horsethief Creek blaze circulated last week. 

Th fire is 10 kilometres west of Invermere and seven kilometres north of Panorama Mountain Resort. 

A spokesperson with the incident management team battling the Horsethief Complex (which is the collective name of the Horsethief fire, the Yearling Creek fire at the south edge of Kootenay National Park near Nipika Mountain Resort, and the Mia Creek fire near Canal Flats) said those are just rumours. But he did say there have been some aerial incursions into the NOTAM zone that encompasses airborne firefighting operations related to the Horsethief fire.

NOTAM zones are set by the federal government and usually denote restrictions or others changes in normal National Airspace System status. In the context of wildfires, this typically translates to aircraft not being allowed to fly near bucketing helicopters, water bombers or skimmers, or other active aerial firefighting measures being taken for a given wildfire.

Horsethief Complex information officer Bryan Zandberg explained the incursions may have been drones, or possibly even paragliders. “They did not interfere with our operations,” Zandberg told the Pioneer. “But it is super important to stay out of our aerial operations zone, so we can action the fire efficiently . . . if there is a drone there, we do have to land until the drone is cleared, for the safety of the public and the pilots.”

When the Horsethief Creek fire broke out on Monday, July 24, the initial response to it was led by the Southeast Fire Centre. But given the fire’s rapid growth and close proximity to heavily populated areas, a designated incident management team took over battling the blaze on Thursday, July 27. 

Zandberg said that so far as the incident management team has been on the scene there have been no issues with boats or watercraft interfering with helicopters bucketing from local water bodies.

“We are bucketing from several lakes. If things shift, we get some wind and things get critical, and we need to bring water bombers and skimmers, we appreciate people staying clear,” he said.

On Tuesday, July 25, however, before the incident management team was in Invermere, several residents gathered at the top of the Fort Point public shore access stairway to observe water bombers scoop up water from Lake Windermere to fight the Horsethief Creek fire. At one point, a boat was out on the lake (see photo above). Residents observed a water bomber circle overhead 10 times before departing. 

The resident who submitted the photo of the scene explained there’s no way of knowing for sure if the plane had intended to pick up water or not, or if the plane did intend to pick up water, if it was dissuaded by the boat.

The Pioneer attempted to learn more about the situation but was unable to prior to press deadline.