Kayla Carlson, left, and Rob Sharp of the Chemainus Fire Department were among the many local firefighters on the scene of the Maple Mountain wildfire this summer. (Municipality of North Cowichan photo)

Maple Mountain wildfire in 2018 required coordinated effort in the Cowichan Valley

The Municipality of North Cowichan’s response to last summer’s community scare wide-ranging

It’s been one year since a coordinated effort between local fire departments and the Municipality of North Cowichan ensured a blaze on Maple Mountain didn’t get away and turn out a lot worse than originally feared.

When the last ember was finally extinguished, it marked a significant triumph for the community. It was truly a time of trepidation amid B.C.’s worst wildfire season on record, with the reality hitting a little too close to home.

Natasha Horsman, North Cowichan’s manager of communications and strategic initiatives, provided some insight into an incredible week of around-the-clock activity that started when the wildfire first flared up on the afternoon of Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018.

Horsman noted three actions were immediately undertaken by the Municipality: the Municipal Forester was dispatched to the mountain and began liaising with the fire departments; staff in the Operations department dispatched their three water tank trucks to assist with bringing water and firefighting equipment to Maple Mountain which continued for the duration of the wildfire as it was needed; and staff connected with the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s Public Safety department, confirmed basic information, and put out the first public update.

That update came at 3 p.m. as crews were responding to the fire on Maple Mountain and urged the public to avoid the mountain and keep Osborne Bay Road clear for fire apparatus.

Two further updates followed that first day: at 5:35 p.m. it was announced trailheads to Maple Mountain and Mount Richards were closed. No large-scale evacuation was required at the time.

At 7:45 p.m., Osborne Bay Road was reopened and those who were asked to leave their homes for firefighting purposes could return. Homeowners were advised if the RCMP had attended their residence and asked them to be on alert to remain ready to leave the area in case the wildfire flared up. The alert area went from the east side of Osborne Bay Road from Herd Road to Tatlo Road west. The next update was due to be issued at 8 a.m. Aug. 9 unless the situation changed.

“Providing information to the public was a major focus over the duration of the wildfire,” Horsman indicated. “We established a check-in schedule between on-site fire personnel and the Communications Manager. Every four hours, we checked in, determined what updates could be provided, and then distributed information via website, social media, news releases, and emails to council and staff.

“We repeated this process about three times a day for five days, including a weekend. We focused updates on the most relevant information: status of the fire, any road closures, the evacuation alert area, and the trail closures on Maple Mountain. We monitored social media constantly to respond to any questions that arose.”

Horsman added the system of regular and scheduled updates worked well.

“During the wildfire, Municipal Hall received a very limited number of phone calls, and we believe this may have been because of the regular and frequent updates we put out. The power of social media is really illustrated during emergencies or crises.”

As an example, she cited the Municipality’s Facebook post on the first day of the wildfire had more than 20,000 views. The social media reach remained high during the duration of the wildfire, but began to drop off as the community became more aware of what was happening. There were still 15,000 views on Facebook on Day 2 and 12,000 on Day 3.

Once fire chiefs and the BC Wildfire Service deemed the wildfire “under control,” the Municipality moved into appreciation mode. Social media and newspaper ads were taken out thanking the fire personnel for their efforts on the wildfire front; thank you cards went to each of North Cowichan’s four fire halls; and thank you letters were distributed to the neighbouring departments that assisted.

“We also initiated a trail impact assessment to determine the extent of damages and repair needed to trail infrastructure on the mountain,” Horsman added.

Upon completion of that assessment, all but two damaged trails were reopened on Sept. 5.

The investigation into the cause fell under the jurisdiction of the RCMP and no definitive information was ever released.

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