WESTLOCK - Considering 2021 started with a 10-acre wildfire April 6 in the Echo Lake area caused by an abandoned campfire and the region was dried to a crisp as temperatures spiked into the mid-to-high 30s in June and July, it could have been a hellish summer for Westlock County firefighters.
At Westlock County’s Sept. 21 governance and priorities meeting, protective services manager John Biro presented council with the year-to-date numbers that included the issuance of 320 fire permits and extensions, plus 219 incidents ranging from motor-vehicle collisions, to a downed power line and medical assists, structure, grass and vehicle/tractor fires and even the Aug. 30 ultralight plane crash at the Westlock Municipal Airport.
“We’re right up there (as far as volume), but we haven’t had any large events such as in previous years with the wildfires. The fire season came on really quick and was very concerning, but the public was really good this year. I’m not sure if it was because B.C. was going crazy with the fires that people were a little more cautious here,” said Biro. “It was relatively slow for us, thank goodness.”
And if you’re looking for a success story from the past year, look no further than Echo Lake. Following the April wildfire, the community banded together and held a media event April 24 to draw attention to the ongoing issues. Then over the May long weekend, Westlock RCMP, in conjunction with the Town of Westlock and county peace officers, patrolled the infamous sand/gravel pits, once dubbed a ‘war zone’ and checked 17 quads, two side-by-sides, two motorcycles and one dune buggy and handed out two tickets for improper documentation. Nine other people were also spoken to while unloading their ATVs and didn’t have proper documentation and were sent home.
That weekend Westlock RCMP Staff Sgt. Al Baird said no one was found shooting at the site, which has long been a complaint of area residents and has, in past years, been blamed for sparking wildfires — the site is regularly littered with all forms of trash, including old appliances and propane tanks, plus thousands of spent shell casings.
Following that initial blitz, county firefighters and even area residents remained diligent performing random spot patrols throughout the summer months. The combined efforts, along with ongoing varying levels of municipal fire bans/restrictions, that included the banning of exploding targets and tracer rounds, backcountry wood fires on public and private lands and fireworks, kept the area from going up in smoke — Biro told council he didn’t have any complaints in regards to open fires in the backcountry during the year, while shooting complaints “dropped dramatically.”
“I put it out there to some of the volunteers in the area and asked if they would do some patrols during our peak times, the witching hour as I would call it. I asked them if they could be out and present to the public and if they saw anything to let either the RCMP or myself know,” Biro noted. “They did do some pass bys on the weekends, just for a couple of hours here and there and were well received by the public. And I may be doing that again very soon as depending on the conditions fall is our next high fire season. Once we get a couple of good frosts and the grass is completely dead, then everything is volatile again.”
County reeve Jared Stitsen, who’s also the Busby fire chief, thanked Biro and area firefighters for their work in the Echo Lake area.
“I want to congratulate you for the work you’ve been doing out there, especially in the Clyde area. There was a lot of awareness brought to that area. And we can see in a dry year what that does and the benefits of it and the cost savings for the county and province and time of the volunteers,” said Stitsen.