Devastating blaze highlights shortage of firefighters in Powell River

City councillor says several years have passed since coastal municipality added any professional firefighter positions

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By Marilyn Reichert

When Willow Baillie’s home in the Powell River suburb of Wildwood burned down in December 2022, it highlighted the coastal B.C. community’s ongoing problem with a shortage of firefighters.

After the fire, Baillie was dismayed to learn that Fire Hall No. 2, located directly across from her residence, has never had firefighters on site. It has always been staffed by volunteers.

“The current system is obviously struggling,” said Powell River Fire Chief Terry Peters. “Mrs. Baillie’s house would have been far less damaged if in fact that hall across the street from her — literally across the street — was staffed… She lost everything.”

Built in 1949, Fire Hall No. 2 has always been what’s known as a “paid-on-call” facility. Paid-on-call firefighters are volunteers from the local community who are paid to be trained to a professional firefighter level, but not hired as staff. They are alerted by pager to local fires and paid to meet on location. This is a common cost-saving measure in smaller towns where the property tax base is considerably lower than in large cities.

Peters has been with the Powell River Fire Department for 36 years; four years as paid-on-call and 32 years as a career firefighter. When he was promoted to chief in 2016, he knew the challenges ahead regarding staffing.

“According to the National Fire Protection Act standards, four firefighters are required on a truck every time it rolls out the door,” Peters said. “We play Russian roulette with our staffing… if I get four, that’s a good day. That means nobody is sick, or on holidays, everything’s good,” said Peters.

“But most of the time, we are rolling out with two firefighters,” Peters said.

Firefighters are also first responders

As in other communities, Powell River’s firefighters are first responders who attend a wide range of calls. In 2022, there were 12,143 calls to Powell River’s Fire Hall No. 1, 60 per cent of which were medical calls, Peters said.

Peters has brought the need for staff before city council on several occasions.

“It comes down to … firefighters cost too much,” Peters said. “I don’t produce cash, so we are treated like a burden.”

Powell River Coun. Rob Southcott agrees there is a shortage, adding it has been “several years” since the municipality added full-time fire positions.

“To be fully staffed, we are talking significant amounts of money [in wages and benefits].”

Southcott said he has raised the firefighter shortage with city council, and it has “had many discussions about this.”

More volunteers needed

“The biggest priority is to find more volunteers … The fire department is beating the bushes constantly,” he said. The recent fire in Wildwood “stimulated a number of people to come forward,” he said, but finding volunteers is still a challenge.

“It’s unusual for younger people to come forward … people now are so busy, both spouses working, even here in this town, because affordability is so challenging,” Southcott said. “They just don’t have the time, energy and inclination to go out and do one more thing.”

Ryan Thoms, manager of emergency services for the qathet Regional District where Powell River is located, said “These are very small tax bases that support these services. It’s a universal challenge, recruiting and retaining.”

Thoms said there are eight fire halls in the qathet Regional District, which covers 5,000 square kilometres on the north Sunshine Coast and Texada, Savary, and Lasqueti Islands. But Fire Hall No. 1, the location of Peters’ office, is the only one in the region equipped with career firefighters who rotate two at a time on 12-hour shifts. The other halls are staffed with volunteers on pagers, Thoms said.

In Powell River, which has a population of around 14,000 people, “we don’t just have endless numbers of people to pull from, so we have to work really hard,” Thoms said.

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