How New Gold’s Fire and Mine Rescue team helped neighboring communities during the 2017 wildfires.
Written By: Kylie Williams
When disaster strikes, the most immediate help will come from those around you – your neighbours. Connecting and building relationships with them today will mean a better response and faster recovery. – PreparedBC
In mineral exploration, the term ‘communities’ is often heard in the context of gaining community and public support or as a risk to be managed. While this perception is slowly changing, it is easy to forget that we are also neighbours who live and work side-by-side, from our downtown office towers to some of the most remote corners of the province.
Neighbours help each other and AME members tend to be well prepared as first responders in an emergency due to the nature of our work and the extensive first aid and emergency response training we undertake. During the 2017 wildfire season, New Gold’s New Afton Fire and Mine Rescue team, along with the Indigenous Relations team, were prepared to assist and provide considerable support to surrounding communities.
BC’s devastating 2017 wildfire season was the worst in the history of the province. Over 1.2 million hectares were destroyed by the 1,300 fires that engulfed the province between April and November costing the province billions and displacing 65,000 British Columbians from their homes.
Mike Owens, Fire and Mine Rescue Chief at New Gold’s New Afton mine, recalls that the first sign of trouble in the Kamloops area came on July 5, when a New Gold employee spotted a grass fire sparked by a car accident on Highway 1 near Cherry Creek a few kilometers west of the New Afton mine.
“The employee called back to the mine site to let us know that this had occurred,” said Owens, “We ended up responding down into that area, as we had already been in kind of extreme fire danger for a number of days prior to that.” The New Gold team were first on the scene with two fire engines, a command vehicle with a wildfire trailer, a water tender, and 12 responders. Around 45 of the 406 workers at New Afton are trained as firefighters, in addition to their regular jobs.
The following day, July 6, the Elephant Hill fire began. It would eventually burn for 76 days and destroy more than 192,000 hectares. Concern about the proximity of the Elephant Hill fire spurred a meeting between the Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation (SSN – comprised of the Skeetchestn and Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc Indian Bands) and New Gold’s Indigenous Relations team which includes the Senior Advisor – Indigenous Relations, Economic Development Manager and General Manager. Initial efforts involved the New Afton Emergency Response team working collaboratively with the Skeetchestn Fire Department to implement Fire Smart initiatives and reduce fire hazards in and around the community.
When the fire was just four kilometres from the edge of the Skeetchestn reserve, Bill McIntosh, New Afton’s Economic Development Manager, worked with Brentwood Construction to provide equipment which was used to build a firebreak around the community. Brentwood donated the equipment for the task, and New Gold covered the operating costs and fuel.
During the Skeetchestn evacuation order in early August, community members were directed to Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc where an Emergency Evacuation Centre was set up, secondary to the Sandman Centre in town. The Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc hosted members of four other evacuated First Nations communities, in addition to Skeetchestn. New Gold provided a refrigerated truck to Tk’emlúps so they could store food for the evacuees.
Throughout the Elephant Hill fire, Martha Manuel, Senior Advisor – Indigenous Relations provided ongoing support and worked closely with the Skeetchestn Emergency Operations Centre (EOC). She helped organize any other resources required during the fire and assisted with ongoing communications between the First Nations communities and other fire response resources.
“Relationships are fundamental to everything that we do,” said Owens, who is already preparing for the 2018 wildfire season, “Emergency response is hopefully a very small part of that, but, certainly, when a crisis occurs, having those relationships already pre-existing allows for our organizations to work seamlessly with one another to accomplish a common goal.”
New Gold also donated gift cards for evacuees affected by the wildfires and volunteers, and Teck Resources, another AME member and neighbour, raised thousands of dollars for affected residents around their operations in southern BC.
This is but a single example. BC’s exploration and mining sector are seeking to have a positive social impact around the province, from raising awareness and hundreds of thousands of dollars for The BC Children’s Hospital and the BC Cancer Foundation’s OvCare program to simply pointing out unsafe work when we see it.
See you in the field this summer, neighbours!