Chris Terry could get by with a little help from his friends, he could even try with a little help from his friends.
But in the case of the Sunshine Valley fire chief’s requests for help in dealing with what he calls a ‘disaster waiting to happen’ in a local village, the answer from the Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD) was a swift ‘no’. The FVRD can’t help those who don’t pay into the system says chief administrative officer Paul Gipps, but the offer is always on the table for Sunshine Valley to join the district.
Huckleberry a ‘disaster waiting to happen’
Of all the worries the 16-person volunteer-run fire department has, and there are several, the biggest is what to do with an expanding recreational ‘village’ on the east side of Highway 3 where the old Hope-Princeton Highway runs.
Huckleberry, originally set up as a campground with mainly RVs and no road access during the winter, has morphed into a year-round village. Crowded together on a hill, permanent structures mesh with RVs whose owners have built structures around the RVs, turning them into year-round structures.
Terry points out numerous fire hazards on his drive through — faulty wiring, propane tanks, the very close proximity of structures. If a fire broke out in Huckleberry, Terry said the department wouldn’t be able to respond.
“If you get a fire here on the west end, we’ve said we probably won’t even try and respond because all it would do would be put our firefighters in danger,” said Terry, adding a fire engine cannot be maneuvered through the dirt road snaking through the village.
“We’d respond, but I wouldn’t put any of my crews up in that village. None of our equipment would go up in that village, unless we could hit it hard enough in the initial stages.”
The department has been proactive, purchasing a smaller compressed air foam truck that could attack a fire if it was in the initial stages. But once the fire spreads to more than one home, Terry said it would be too late.
“It’s just a disaster waiting to happen,” he said.
Kyle Dion, director of operations and resource management for Sunshine Valley Developments, said the situation is not as dire as Terry makes it out to be but there is still plenty of work that needs to be done on Huckleberry’s building regulations, electrical systems and water sources.
“I’ve working pretty hard on putting a building regulatory process in place and then we’re going to bring everyone on side with their leases,” Dion said. “We’re also working on establishing better water sources on that side, so the fire department has better and easier access to water in case they have to fight a fire on that side.”
Dion said the concern about electrical wiring in some homes is one he shares with Terry, so work is ongoing with BC Hydro to ensure the wiring is safe.
Asking for help from the regional district
The situation in Huckleberry was one of the stops Terry made when he showed Reg Dyck, manager of electoral area emergency services, around Sunshine Valley last month. This is also when he made his pitch for assistance from the FVRD for the fire department which relies entirely on donations and fundraising.
On Terry’s wish list from the regional district are two things: to become part of the district’s shift to the emergency paging system E-Comm and to utilize the district’s training facilities.
The department currently has their own phone number, not connected to 911, where locals call in fires. The BC Ambulance Service also pages the department for road rescues. But not all emergency calls come to the department, and Terry said not all dispatchers know to call them if something happens on Highway 3.
“The downside is, if somebody’s driving by and they dial 911, Hope or Hope Search and Rescue will get dispatched, because we’re not set up with E-Comm,” Terry said.
The FVRD is moving all of their fire dispatch services to the Vancouver-based E-Comm dispatch service, this move could happen by the fall of 2018.
When Terry spoke to E-Comm, they told him if the fire department switched to E-Comm alone, it would cost them $4,500-6,000, and wouldn’t be able to happen before late 2019.
He reasoned adding the department to the FVRD’s agreement wouldn’t cost anything extra for the regional district. If there are some costs to Sunshine Valley, Terry said he could cover these.
Gipps said E-Comm is a service which will cost millions of dollars. For Sunshine Valley to become a part of this, the community needs to decide whether they want to become a service area under the FVRD. This entails they are serviced by the district, and taxed to pay for those services.
Informal agreements like what Terry is suggesting are not possible, Gipps said, as the work of the FVRD is governed by specific bylaws with the province and the Local Government Act. What insurance the district has and for what areas also governs where the district can operate.
Terry also wants to utilize some of the facilities the FVRD uses to train their firefighters, as many of his crew don’t get trained on all aspects of firefighting.
“It’s huge for us because some of these guys will never go into a burning building until they go into a burning building, with no training,” he said. The department sends their crew to training, including road rescue and emergency response, but Terry has to be very careful which ones he sends them on as there are no extra funds available to the cash-strapped department.
The ask was either to use some of the training facilities the FVRD has, to practice live fire training, or add them to a roster when training takes place.
Gipps said each fire department owns their own training facilities, so Terry would need to speak directly with these departments about using them.
Past opposition to joining the district
To become part of the regional district the community would have to approach the district with a petition, which would likely face pushback from businesses and property owners who would see their taxes go up.
In a 2012 referendum on whether to become an accredited volunteer fire department with the regional district, 82 per cent of voters in Sunshine Valley voted against. A tax requisition of $214,000 would have been implemented to pay for the service, if voters went with the FVRD.
Business owners of Sunshine Valley Developments and Holiday Trails RV Resorts offered an alternative at the time, to purchase land for, build and equip a fire hall across from the RV resort.
“We’d love to help Sunshine Valley, but the Sunshine Valley people have got to ask us for help. We can’t just go there. And we’re glad to offer the service, whatever they want,” Gipps said. “We’re there in an emergency, we’ll do what we can, of course.”
Terry wasn’t happy with the answer from the FVRD, so the search for alternatives continues.
“I’m thinking I just showed you a disaster that’s waiting to happen, and you pretty much said ‘well, you’re on your own. Yeah we agree, but you’re on your own,’” Terry said.
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