Neighbours fight a small late-night bush fire with garden hoses and shovels in Cinnabar Valley on June 5. They couldn’t get help from local fire services because the fire was located in an area under B.C. Wildfire Services jurisdiction. (Photo courtesy Muriel Wells)

Neighbours on edge of Nanaimo city limits left to put out bush fire themselves

Cinnabar Valley residents tackle fire with hoses and buckets for two and a half hours

  • Jun. 14, 2021 12:00 a.m.

Residents in Nanaimo’s Cinnabar Valley have expressed alarm over a bush fire behind their homes they tackled last weekend without help from firefighters.

Luke Griffin, who lives on the 1600 block of Blackstone Place, said a neighbour knocked on his door at about 10:30 p.m. Saturday, June 5, to tell him neighbours needed help to put out a fire about 100 metres from his backyard property line.

“When I got back there, he’s 300 feet from my house with a shovel and he’s trying to smother out a couple of tree fires,” Griffin said. “It’s all moss on rock and dry back there.”

A 30m-by-10m area was burning. Neighbours strung about 150m of garden hoses together and brought shovels fight the fire. Such a long line of hoses left little water pressure at the fire site, so neighbours carried 20-litre buckets of water to the fire that was getting into trees and becoming difficult to fight. Griffin said it took 12 neighbours about two hours to douse the flames.

He said when 911 was called the dispatcher wouldn’t alert Nanaimo Fire Rescue because the fire’s location is under B.C. Wildfire Service jurisdiction.

“We were told it’s out of the jurisdiction of the local fire department, which is two kilometres away, because it’s 300 feet off our property line,” Griffin said. “If we hadn’t seen it and [with] the amount of wind, the houses would’ve gone up for sure.”

Muriel Wells also called 911 after several minutes when she didn’t hear sirens coming toward the area and was told to call the B.C. Wildfire Service. There was confusion about the phone number, but she eventually talked to an operator with the service who passed information along, but couldn’t say what resources would respond. She said two B.C. Wildfire Service firefighters arrived about 1:15 a.m. Sunday.

“Basically, the neighbours looked at each other and said, ‘OK, If this ever happens again, our houses are on fire,'” she said.

But Nanaimo Fire Rescue says, based on the weather conditions and other information available at the time, the 911 dispatcher made the correct call.

“In this case … we were at ‘moderate’ in terms of wildfire risk … it was nine degrees that night, 80 per cent relative humidity and the winds were 10 kilometres [per hour],” said Geoff Whiting, Nanaimo Fire Rescue assistant chief of operations. “If that fire had happened in the middle of August – hot, dry, windy – yes, for sure we would have sent crews.”

Whiting said responding beyond city boundaries for bush fires that don’t pose an immediate threat to lives and property impacts the resources available for emergencies across the rest of the city. He said some other woodland areas bordering municipal boundaries aren’t covered by municipal or rural fire departments, but Nanaimo Fire Rescue is aware of which properties on the borders are at risk from wildland interface fires.

“I know those people might be concerned, but again, if conditions are worse and it’s a fire right behind their property, even though it’s outside the city, those are fires that we would respond to and fight,” Whiting said.

Residents said winds were gusting in the area that day and Griffin saw embers capable of starting more fires. Neighbours left the hoses and tools at the site overnight in case the fire restarted, which it did the following morning.

“We’re not firefighters,” Griffin said. “We know how to put water on it, but we don’t know where to check for hot spots and stuff … you’d think there’d be some kind of leeway. If there’s 12 residents out there trying to fight a fire that need help and backup, send the fire department.”

Wells said B.C. Wildfire Service firefighters returned later Sunday to ensure the fire was out and said the fire was likely caused by discarded smoking material that smouldered in the moss, possibly for hours, before igniting.

“Everybody’s safe. We’re all in one piece,” Wells said. “We’re just glad that our one neighbour was paying attention, because the rest of us just thought it’s someone just having a bonfire … It could have been a whole lot different.”

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