By Steve Hubrecht

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The mayor of West Kelowna recently gave recognition to firefighters from the Columbia Valley who helped his community when it was threatened by wildfire this summer.

The McDougall Creek wildfire began burning in the Central Okanagan in mid-August, threatening West Kelowna, Kelowna, Lake Country and other nearby regions. 

Within three days the fire had become one of the worst ever recorded in the area, prompting a state of emergency. Firefighters from other parts of B.C. poured in to help, including four members of Invermere Fire Rescue — Captain Erik McLaughlin, Captain Janice Dallaire, and crew members Brendan Garies and Nick Melnyk.

West Kelowna Mayor Gord Milsom sent a letter last week expressing thanks to the four on behalf of his community and West Kelowna’s fire crew.

“There simply are no words of thanks that run deep enough to show our gratitude,” wrote Milsom, later adding that “the next generation of firefighters who learn from example surely benefit from your outstanding personnel who demonstrated leadership, partnership and firefighting excellence in our community.”

The Invermere firefighters were in the Okanagan for nearly a week in late August, spending four days in Lake Country and another two in West Kelowna.

Dallaire told the Pioneer that the four were part of efforts in the wildland-urban interface to bridge the gap between the BC Wildfire Service (which dealt with the fire in the forests) and the local municipal fire crews (which dealt with structures in the communities). 

The Invermere crew worked 12-hour days, spending most of their time putting out spot fires that cropped up within 50 feet (15 metres) of people’s homes and properties.

“So, a lot of digging,” explained Dallaire, adding they would use pick axe-like tools to turn up earth, and douse any flames, keeping a sharp eye out for fires that were burning underground within tree root systems.

Dallaire, McLaughlin and Melnyk had been similarly deployed to battle fires at Logan Lake two years previously (but for Garies, this was his first out-of-Columbia Valley deployment). In 2021 Logan Lake had been evacuated and the streets were empty. But this past summer, West Kelowna, Kelowna and the Lake Country communities were still full of residents.

“It was definitely strange in that way,” said Dallaire. “People were very kind to us. You couldn’t go into Tim Hortons without people coming up to you and shaking your hand or hugging you. We talked to people who didn’t know if they had lost their homes. We talked to people who did know they had lost their homes. There was a lot of gratitude all around.”

While in the Okanagan, the four Invermere firefighters stayed in dorm rooms at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Okanagan campus. “For firefighters that’s the Ritz. Accommodation is usually a lot more basic than that,” said Dallaire.

In case readers are wondering why Invermere firefighters were deployed to the Kelowna area when the Horsethief Creek and Yearling Creek fires were still burning in the Columbia Valley, Dallaire pointed out that the threat from the fires here had greatly receded by the time the Invermere crew left for the Okanagan. She also noted that the Invermere group is made up of structural firefighters (who battle blazes in homes and buildings), and that the Horsethief and Yearling fires were being battled by wildland (forest) firefighters.

Dallaire has three sons (one grown, the other two still in elementary school) and acknowledged that it’s not easy for firefighters to put their personal lives on hold for a week. 

“But you do it, because somebody else needs your help. We’re doing our part. When our turn comes and the Columbia Valley needs help, other firefighters will come to help us. B.C. is one big community in that way,” she said.