Despite being a local fire warden for 26 years, Matt Dobler hasn’t been called to a wildfire once this year.
It wasn’t until well into the Christie Mountain fire, visible from his back door, that that the 64-year-old received a call from BC Wildfire; only to be told that he wouldn’t be needed this year.
“It was about a week after the fire was burning, and they called and told me, ‘Listen, this is how it is, we’re not going to use you guys this year,’” said Dobler. “They could have simply come out at the start and told us this.”
That is after being told he was required to insure a second truck for his team, to help them spread out due to COVID-19.
“When they called us this year, it was all about COVID, and making sure everything was done properly,” said Dobler. “Some of my guys leave their summer jobs so they can do this, never got one hour this year.”
Dobler is one of four fire wardens in the Okanagan, with two more in Osoyoos and one in Kelowna. Together, the four have over 100 years of wildfire-fighting experience between them, not including their crews. It’s a far cry from the dozen or so in the region they once had, fighting fires like the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire of 2003.
Dobler and the other fire wardens had been one of the early groups on the 2003 fire, crossing the lake from Antler Beach in a zodiac and building a fireguard to the top of the mountain with pulaskis, a fire-fighting axe, and mattocks. Despite the brutal conditions that year, and his own personal struggles, Dobler was ready and willing to fight that fire until it was finally extinguished.
“We were up there a month and a half, sometimes 16 hours a day,” said Dobler. “When that fire started, I was going through chemo, and I stopped my chemo so I could go help out on that fire.”
In previous years, the fire wardens would be the first few groups called in to follow after the initial attack teams had established a fire line. Dobler and the other three fire wardens in the Okanagan are the last of their kind in the province, the only Fire Warden A’s, with their crews. The fire wardens would then often be the last crews at the scenes, mopping up what remained while the initial attack teams moved on to the next major blaze.
“In previous years, they’d call us and tell us that we’d have 15 minutes to get ready, and I’d call my crew and away we’d go,” said Dobler.
Instead, this year Dobler had to sit and watch as out-of-town fire crews arrived to battle the Christie Mountain blaze, and then clean up what was left, for a much higher price.
“I let it go for a while, but when it got down to the mop-up stage like it is now, there’s absolutely no reason for these guys to be in town, especially with COVID,” said Dobler. “You have to feed these guys, and house them, and they’re still here, why? Everything that’s burning now up on that hill is inside the perimeter, in some areas where they can’t even get to, why are they here? They’re just sitting there watching the interior of the fire burn.”
After a quiet fire season last year, Dobler had been ready to retire from being a warden but stayed on standby after COVID-19 struck. After this year, he’s made the decision not to come back. It’s not the end that he wished, if not for him, then for the other fire wardens.
“They just showed no respect for the people that have been there for the last 30 years,” said Dobler. “I don’t know what to say. It’s just the way the did it that upsets me.”
Dobler has already sold his truck, and he’s in process of selling off his equipment. That includes shovels, hundreds of feet of hoses, a water tank and pump, and every other piece of gear that he assembled over his 26 years of service at his own cost. This year, that included hand sanitizer and masks as well.
“Soon as they called, I uninsured my truck, unloaded my truck, now I’m in the process of selling all my gear,” said Dobler.
|All of Matt Dobler’s fire warden gear that went unused this year, despite the Christie Mountain fire just five minutes away from his home. Dobler is selling all of the gear that he spent 26 years of service accumulating. (Brennan Phillips – Western News)|
Dobler and his crew of eight also underwent the yearly review course, which they each had to pay for themselves, as well as a course on COVID-19 precautions ahead of this year’s fire season.
According to BC Wildfire, the reason why Dobler’s crew wasn’t called in was a matter of the contract the provincial government currently has in place.
“So when we respond to a wildfire, we will first assign our BC Wildfire Service firefighters regardless of their location in the province,” said Kyla Fraser, an information officer with BC Wildfire. “Then to type two contract crews and type three contract crews. Once we’ve exhausted all those resources will we able to hire on emergency firefighters such as the fire wardens in Penticton.”
Per the current policy, BC Wildfire isn’t able to utilize teams like the fire wardens before they run through their list of contractors and using them first.
“Essentially it is a contract that has been made on behalf of larger government,” said Fraser. “It is not actually a decision that has been put in place by BC Wildfire or the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.”
At the end of the day, fighting fires was never about money for Dobler.
“It was more doing it for my community than anything else. I worked a lot of extra hours so I could take the time off for a fire. It was our community service.”
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