B.C. fire crews temporarily pulled out as protest tried to 'overwhelm' RCMP blockade

The BC Wildfire Service has confirmed it temporarily pulled out crews fighting fires in the province's Shuswap region after protesters showed up at an RCMP roadblock Wednesday evening in what police say was an effort to "overwhelm" the blockade.

Police say protesters challenged officers at the blockade on the Trans-Canada Highway, and "threats of violence" against emergency workers had prompted the Mounties to increase their presence there.

Some residents of the Shuswap in B.C.'s Interior have been refusing to obey wildfire evacuation orders, prompting officials to warn that they are putting lives at risk, and imperilling firefighting strategies.

Videos posted to social media show about 20 protesters at a blockade of police cars in an evacuation zone near the lakeside community of Sorrento.

Wildfire service information officer Forrest Tower said at a briefing Thursday that crews fighting the Bush Creek East fire were temporarily reassigned based on information from police that the area was unsafe for wildfire personnel.

Social media posts about the withdrawal were later deleted by the wildfire service, Tower said, in an effort "to not give something steam that didn't and doesn't deserve to have it," he said. "We know the power of social media in terms of making something bigger than it might be."

The tensions over the evacuation orders that cover thousands of people in the region come as the directives elsewhere in B.C.'s Interior are easing, with firefighters reporting good progress thanks to rain and other favourable weather.

Kelowna fire Chief Travis Whiting told a briefing the goal was for all evacuation orders in that city to be lifted Thursday, although some are set to remain in place in West Kelowna and other communities on the opposite side of Lake Okanagan.

The protesters in the Shuswap are seen in videos telling officers they do not believe politicians have the right to prevent them from using the road, and that it is illegal for the RCMP to block it.

The group, which organized itself on Facebook, had hoped to rally enough support to push through the blockade to enter the evacuation zone, saying they planned to support those who have chosen to remain inside to protect their property.

"This is a warning to all you Canadians out there, this is what's coming," one man says after confronting police in a video of the incident, referring to the RCMP blockade at the intersection of Blind Bay Road.

The group dispersed after about an hour. RCMP say in a statement that officers de-escalated the situation safely, without incident, adding no one was arrested and no charges are expected to stem from the confrontation.

The Mounties have stepped up their presence "in response to ongoing efforts by some individuals who have undermined BC Wildfire Service fire suppression work through the movement of vital equipment, and have (compromised) emergency personnel safety through threats of violence," the police statement says.

The area under evacuation order is not safe due to active wildfires, as well as damage to power lines and unstable trees and structures, it says.

“While we understand and sympathize with the residents of the North Shuswap, there is a process in place through the local emergency operations centre that needs to be followed," spokesperson Cpl. James Grandy says in the statement.

“When the (centre) deems it safe to do so, they can issue passes into the area to support a resupply."

Tensions have been mounting in the Shuswap, which is one of the hardest-hit areas in the province's wildfire fight. BC Wildfire Service crews are fighting the 410-square-kilometre Bush Creek East fire that has destroyed an unknown number of properties and triggered evacuation orders covering about 11,000 people.

About 370 fires were burning across B.C. Thursday, including 14 "wildfires of note" that are highly visible or pose a threat to people or property. South of the Shuswap, fires around Lake Okanagan have destroyed or damaged about 200 homes.

Tower said Wednesday anyone who chooses to remain behind must stay on private property, and he asked those who remain in evacuation zones to communicate with emergency authorities.

There are ways they can potentially "work together," he said, such as hiring residents as emergency firefighters if they have a "base level" of training and safety certifications.

"We have gone as far as that, and it works very well," Tower told a news conference.

"There's the option to just be more involved in our operational activities. It just comes back to communication and the willingness at some level to take direction from someone in BC Wildfire."

Tower said Thursday the battle against the Bush Creek East fire would be bolstered by the arrival of 100 Mexican firefighters on Friday.

B.C. Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma said Wednesday the BC Wildfire Service had "opened a dialogue" to understand why some are defying the orders, but the directives carry legal weight and defiance of them must end.

She said some local residents with skills to help battle fires are being recruited now to join the wildfire fight, but others must leave.

Firefighting efforts in the region have been aided by ample rain that fell Tuesday and Wednesday over the Okanagan and Shuswap regions.

Brad Litke, a BC Wildfire Service senior operations officer, said Thursday there had been "significant progress" in the battle against the complex fires that have been threatening communities around Lake Okanagan.

Up to seven millimetres of rainfall Wednesday had helped firefighters, he said.

Whiting said a list of Kelowna neighbourhoods where evacuation orders are to be lifted would be posted on the Central Okanagan Regional District's emergency website Thursday.

"We couldn't be more excited to see this happen," he told a briefing.

— With files from CHNL

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2023.

Brieanna Charlebois, Darryl Greer and Ashley Joannou, The Canadian Press