No time for risks: Wildfires strain emergency services, including backcountry rescue operations

With Revelstoke Search and Rescue issuing warnings and Parks Canada closing backcountry access, exploring the outdoors can bring wildfire risks. As emergency services face longer response times, the message is clear: now is not the time to take any risks.

Parks Canada conducts long-line sling rescue training. Photo: Shelley Bird/Parks Canada

With a state of emergency officially in place, British Columbia’s emergency services are focused on battling wildfires. An urgent message from backcountry rescue operators is unfolding: now is not the time to take any risks.

Wildfires and smoke, paired with recently eased restrictions, have raised alarms for search and rescue services around Revelstoke. From July 9 to July 18, Parks Canada conducted five search and rescue operations in Glacier National Park. Three of those involved technical long-line rescues, which require certified rescue pilots. With emergency services already strained, response times are becoming a concern.

An urgent plea for caution due to strained emergency services

According to Shelley Bird, Parks Canada Public Relations and Communications officer, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks have had a slight decline in visitation due to the harsh conditions. However, “the parks have not been quieter in terms of search and rescue,” Bird said.

Hot conditions are essentially “drying out the glue holds together the clay soil that binds together those rock layers in the mountains,” she explains. This destabilizes the landscape, resulting in more rockfall. One climber was found deceased in Glacier National Park on July 19.

Read more about the incident in Glacier National Park here: 

Brief: Missing climber found deceased in Glacier National Park

Recently, Parks Canada and Revelstoke Search and Rescue (SAR) have begun asking people to postpone their outdoor adventures. In a Facebook post on July 20, Revelstoke SAR pleaded with backcountry enthusiasts to take extreme caution while wildfires rage.

Despite the strongly-worded Facebook post, Revelstoke SAR does not want to strictly prohibit people from exploring the outdoors. As explained by Giles Shearing, Revelstoke SAR board secretary and manager, SAR is not interested in policing how people use the backcountry.

“The idea is that you just ask people to be a bit more cognizant of their plans. If there’s a likelihood or an opportunity at all for something to go wrong, know that search and rescue might take longer to respond,” Shearing says.

In response to the ongoing conditions, Parks Canada has closed down backcountry access in Mount Revelstoke National Park. Miller Lake Trail, Eva Lake Trail and Jade Lakes Trail are all currently restricted to the public.

The connection between wildfires and search and rescue resources

As resources are directed towards firefighting efforts, search and rescue teams face shortages on certain equipment. Helicopters, in particular, are extremely in demand right now.

Parks Canada safety employees practice long-line helicopter rescues, one of the resources complicated by the ongoing wildfire season. Photo: Shelley Bird/Parks Canada

Both Revelstoke SAR and Parks Canada confirm that the companies they contract helicopters from also work with firefighting teams. As wildfires pick up, there are simply fewer helicopters available for use. This results in longer response times for search and rescue missions, something that serious incidents cannot afford.

“For some of the rescues we’ve been conducting, like long-line technical rescues, you have to have specific skills. And a lot of those very skilled helicopter pilots are also the same people who are out fighting wildfires,” explains Bird.

Beyond physical resources, emergency response workers are also feeling the strain of this summer. Not only is there a shortage of helicopters, but also the people manning them. Seeing people continuously entering the backcountry adds stress to these teams, something that Bird worries about.

“People are very busy responding to emergencies and wildfires,” she says. “There’s a lot of stress, and a lot of people are going to be adding more risk to the circumstances of that.”

There is also the possibility of evacuation for emergency responders to contend with. According to Shearing, Revelstoke SAR has begun briefing their volunteers on what to do in an evacuation scenario. Although they are separate from larger, coordinated evacuation plans, Shearing says they want to be prepared to help.

“It’s not that we don’t have the capacity to assist people, it’s that we’re trying to sort of help set realistic expectations on response time and also encourage responsible recreation,” he emphasizes.

Firefighting aircraft at the Revelstoke Airport on July 21. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

Managing risk during an unpredictable summer

There are a number of factors to take into account when planning outdoor activities right now. Heat and smoke can take a serious toll on physical and mental health. A statement from Parks Canada warns that hot, smoky conditions can seriously impair judgment and stamina.

Both Shearing and Bird emphasize that planning is vital in these conditions. Instead of taking risks, now is the time to be cautious and conservative.

“Whether it’s a day hike or a mountaineering trip, now is not the time to overestimate what your experience and skills are,” Bird says. “If you’re out doing physical activity in this level of smoky skies, that is going to have an impact on your health, mental and physical. That compounds on the level of risk that you are taking.”

However, there is an understanding that spending time outdoors can be an important part of mental health. This has been a traumatic year for many, something that Shearing acknowledges. Instead of eliminating activity completely, he encourages people to ask themselves a couple of questions:

“Is there another activity that they can do that is safer? And if something was to go wrong, are they prepared to call for help or be able to self-rescue themselves?”

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Bailey Gingras-Hamilton is a recent graduate of the Mount Royal University Journalism program, where she developed an interest in current events and social issues. As a chronically curious individual, she enjoys exploring new places, cuisines, and cultures.