If a fire was to spark in the small neighbourhood of Husula, above Westbench it could be devastating, say residents.
They fear a fire could rip through the neighbourhood before first responders are able to make it there.
But a pair of proactive Husula residents, Peter Lindelauf and Bruce Turnbull, have come up with a system to minimize the risk of a devastating fire.
Husula and nearby neighbourhood Westwood have a combined total of approximately 175 homes, both are isolated in the hills above Penticton and a long drive from the nearest fire department, but Husula is even further up the hill.
Why does Husula need to be extra vigilant when it comes to fires? “The hill,” Turnbull said. “It takes a while for them (firefighters) to get up the hill.”
Lindelauf and Turnbull created the Husula fire-watch program after the 2016 Fort McMurray, AB wildfire destroyed approximately 2,400 homes and buildings and caused nearly $10 billion in damage, making it the costliest disaster in Canadian history.
After seeing the devastation in Fort McMurray and noticing multiple fire incidents on the boundary of the Husula neighbourhood, the pair of retirees came to the conclusion they needed to be proactive to prevent disaster from striking their community.
The pair set up an auto-dial fire warning system to alert residents when a wildfire sparks in the vicinity of the neighbourhood or — in the worst case scenario — quickly warn residents to evacuate.
In the event of a fire, a resident will first call 911 and then contact one of the warning system operators. In just a few minutes, everyone signed up for the service will receive a computer generated voice message advising that there is a fire, its location, level of threat, whether the fire department is on site and more.
A second message is sent out once the fire is no longer a threat. Just a few weeks ago a grass fire saw West Bench, Westwood and Husula come close to evacuation.
The area has seen up to five significant fire threats in one summer.
Currently nearly all of Husula’s homes are signed up for the fire warning system. In 2020 Westwood was added to the program and already has about 50 per cent of homes signed up.
The system is completely volunteer run and funded by community donations. Each fire alert message costs about six cents per house.
The recent West Bench fire has sparked interest from West Bench and Sage Mesa residents about the fire warning system. If the system is extended to Westbench it would then cover approximately 600 homes with a sign-up cost of $5 per household.
Max Lake Road Fire Hazards
Husula is perched above an old, remote dirt road called Max Lake Road. The nearly abandoned road brings its own array of human caused fire hazards, Turnbull explained.
Things like illegal camping, campfires, torched stolen vehicles, illegal dumping and general risky behaviour are commonplace on the long dirt road.
“I do a lot of wildlife photography out there and see a lot of concerning things,” Turnbull said. “People camping up there, people living out of there vehicles, littered cigarette butts, garbage, just in the last 12 months I’ve already put out seven unattended campfires up there.”
Due to extremely high fire risk the entire province is currently under a campfire ban.
|Max Lake Road, directly below Husula, is open to the public but attracts a lot of activity that could cause a wildfire. (Jesse Day/Western News)
A few summers ago, Turnbull said he found a stolen truck that had an ATM machine in the back that had been cut open while the interior of the truck was soaked with gas.
“I guess the thieves either forgot to bring a lighter or decided setting the truck on fire was not the safest thing to do given the surrounding vegetation,” Turnbull said.
A human-caused fire on Max Lake Road has the potential to devastate the entire neighbourhood of Husula as it would likely climb through the vegetation and over the bank into Husula.
“At Max Lake, for example, if we have a torched stolen car up there start a fire in the middle of the night, worst-case scenario it could be up to the boundary of our neighbourhood in minutes,” Lindelauf said. “Our neighbourhood could be overrun by fire in about 15 minutes.”
It takes at least 15 minutes for the local fire department and RCMP to reach Husula from Penticton.
The amount of risky behaviour that takes place on Max Lake Road is becoming too much for locals to police on their own, said Turnbull.
He and Lindelauf would like to see a gate added to the start of Max Lake Road to keep people from putting their community at-risk. If not a permanent gate, they would at least like to see the road blocked during summer months when wildfire risk is high.
However, since the road is public it can’t be closed, government officials have told them.
For now, the wildfire warning system will have to serve as the neighbourhood’s main protection to potential fires.
Luckily, the neighbourhood seems to be in good hands with Turnbull and Lindelauf taking the reigns of the fire-watch program.
In 2018, Husula was certified as a FireSmart community. The forester who audited the neighbourhood said Husula was the most proactive neighbourhood when it comes to wildfire protection he’d ever seen.
“That’s the number one concern we have, that this place is going to light up and when it does Husula is going to go without question,” Turnbull said.
“It feels like a question of when, not if,” Lindelauf added.