Residents of a rural community near Lake Cowichan suddenly have no local fire department and have been given no reason why.
The chief of the Mesachie Lake Volunteer Fire Department said he and his deputy chief have been dismissed from their positions by the Cowichan Valley Regional District and the entire department was put on “operational pause” as of Jan. 24.
Gary Eve, who has been a firefighter for 27 years and chief since 2011, said he and deputy chief Owen Robertson received a letter late last week from the CVRD rescinding their appointments and membership in the department.
He said no explanation was given and when asked, they were told they would have to attend a meeting to discuss the reasons.
“We’re all just volunteers here so we really don’t know how we are supposed to play this game,” Eve said. “We’ve yet to decide if and how we are going to fight this.”
Jon Lefebure, chairman of the CVRD, would not explain the reasons for the move, calling the issue a personnel matter.
The CVRD said in a press release that the purpose of the pause is to allow an independent consultant to conduct a third-party review. The review will include an assessment of the department’s equipment, building, and operations to ensure safety for Mesachie Lake residents, now and into the future, according to the release.
Lefebure said the community of Mesachie Lake will continue to receive full and uninterrupted fire protection from adjacent fire departments in the Cowichan Lake area while the operational pause is in place. The third-party review is expected to be completed in the spring with a report being provided to the CVRD’s board for its consideration. It is not clear when or if the fire department will continue regular operations.
Lefebure said the review is being conducted due to concerns around the “operational capacity” of the 13-man volunteer fire department.
“There are new and heightened requirements for fire departments to ensure they can carry out their duties adequately, and concerns were raised within our organization about whether this department was at an adequate operating capacity,” he said. “The CVRD has managed the Mesachie Lake fire department for five decades and our staff works constantly with the department, so we’re continuing to work and support the department through this review.”
Eve said the department is fully staffed with volunteers and its equipment is working and up to date.
“We had no idea anything like this was coming,” he said.
Lefebure assured residents of Mesachie Lake that adjacent fire departments to their community will adequately meet their needs while the review is underway.
Community resident Brenda Bernhardt, a former member of the department, isn’t so sure.
“They have put every single person, every single pet and every single home in our community at risk. When seconds matter 10-15 minutes or 700-900 seconds added response time from Lake Cowichan or Honeymoon Bay to attend is absolutely unacceptable,” she wrote in a letter to the Lake Cowichan Gazette. “Any fire in any structure here is doomed with an additional 10-15 minute wait BEFORE emergency help arrives. Anyone with a life threatening emergency — heart attack, aneurism, stroke etc. is doomed. …
“This is just not right to put a community at risk for any amount of time, let alone months, when a professional, experienced first responder crew is right down the block.”
Lefebure said that while the volunteer fire fighters from Mesachie Lake will not be providing fire protection services during the review process, they will continue to provide road rescue services for the Pacific Marine Route, as per their contract with the provincial government.
“As a local government, we are tasked with not only meeting worker and safety regulations, but also managing taxpayer dollars in a responsible manner,” Lefebure said.
“We feel it is important to take the time to pause and review the fire services operations.”