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Birken volunteer fire department in crisis

Fate of fire fighting capabilities hinge on upcoming AGM



By Cindy Fiipenko

Birken’s Volunteer Fire Department is at a crossroads according to the board of directors. President Christine Crowe sites the lack of community support for increasing frustration at the board level.

“If we won’t see the support at the next AGM, the board is walking and then there will be no fire department,” Crowe said this week.

That AGM is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 25 at 1 p.m. at the Birken Fire Hall.

Crowe, who is in her third year as president, says that the community has two choices: either get involved and move towards becoming a certified fire department or rely entirely on the fire fighting resources of the Village of Pemberton.

“It takes Pemberton 30 to 40 minutes to get out here — and that’s flying. It’s 45 minutes to D’Arcy,” explained Crowe.

When it comes to fire that kind of delay could spell tragedy.

“There was an awful fire on one of the rural reserves last week. They lost everything. They were trying to put out the fire using buckets of water. Who says that can’t happen here? Luckily there were no fatalities.”

Crowe’s husband Wayne is Birken’s fire chief. His interest in the volunteering comes from having lived through a devastating fire in a rural northern B.C. community. Two members of his family, children aged 7 and 8, perished in that fire.

“Wayne got involved not to see that happen again,” said Crowe.

Becoming certified would mean that there would be conceivably less likelihood of loss of life, due to well-maintained, newer trucks capable of faster response times.

The current fleet is aging. The trucks require idling for 10 minutes before they roll. That loss of time can be tragic. In addition, there’s no guarantee that trucks will be fully operational. Due to a lack of security at the fire hall, one of the trucks has been repeatedly vandalized. A request to have an onsite security position funded was turned down by the SLRD.

“One of the trucks is in my yard to keep it from being vandalized,” said Crowe.

Additionally, being more than 15 years old, the vehicles cannot be certified and therefore insurance rates are affected. “Currently people are paying between $2,000 and $3,0000 a year for fire insurance up here. If we were certified that would go down 30 or 40 per cent,” said Crowe.

Certification could also mean more access to funds. Currently, the Birken Volunteer Fire Department operates on a $20,000 annual budget.

“It’s gone up considerably over the years, but it’s still not enough. We’ll use up the budget before we get the next cheque. We have to do fundraisers to raise more money.”

Dispatcher Sharon Porth shares Crowe’s frustrations.

“We’ve lived up here for seven years, and I’ve been on the dispatch for six years,” said Porth, one of the five current board members.

“What has happened for the past five years is that the community hasn’t bothered with the fire department. We have an AGM and they don’t care enough to come out and support us to find out if we need help.”

Porth points out that the fire hazard in the area has been extreme for the past three years.

“We have to attend all the fires, but sometimes we have to call Pemberton and the Ministry of Forests,” said the dispatcher.

She estimates that there are currently 10 volunteer firefighters, but due to their other commitments it’s not enough to avoid the inevitable burn out.

“Last year we did eight major calls,” she said.

Many of those major calls are car accidents where the firefighters are the first on the scene. Other minor calls involve incidents such as downed trees blocking roads and taking down hydro lines.

Birken is not alone when it comes to having a volunteer fire department that is stretched. At the recent Mount Currie Band-VOP joint council meeting, it was reported that the Mount Currie VFD currently has only six members.

Requirements for volunteers are that they be at least 19 years of age and committed to taking the necessary training — much of which is available in Birken and Pemberton. Volunteer firefighters receive a per-call stipend.