Open letter to Ministers Bruce Ralston, Mike Farnworth and George Heyman Re: Shuswap Fires

23 August 2023

We write to request urgently needed help for residents in Celista and the surrounding area of the Shuswap Lake region of British Columbia for:

• timely firefighting help.

• access to fire hydrant water for firefighting.

• land and water access to necessaries, including food, water and fuel.

• adequate prior notification when Forestry or Firefighting personnel set fires in the area.

• notification to affected people when fires threaten lands and residences.

• freedom for the residents–those who stayed behind–to move about as needed, to help one another.

• to allow them to get supplies and machinery where and when needed to put out the remaining fires.

• a thorough investigation into who gave the order for the back burn on a day when high winds were predicted.

• who gave the order that essentially prohibits residents from helping other residents to fight the fires.

• who gave the orders for police to block supplies.

Moreover, residents need to be included in both consultation and decision making, and firefighting responses. Mechanisms can and must be put in place to allow BC Wildfire Service and local Fire Services to make use of and coordinate local resources, including community volunteers and their equipment.

Help controlling and extinguishing fires threatening Shuswap residents’ homes and lands is reported to have been slow and intermittent, with fire crews being taken off the Shuswap fire and transferred back onto the Kelowna fire. Furthermore, residents have reported that in one instance a fire crew stood by, refusing to assist after having been ordered to stay put, leaving residents to protect their homes on their own. Fortunately, said fire crew eventually gave in to reason and compassionate common-sense and lent their hands to putting out the spot fires as they arose. Equally disturbing is the fact that police have been blocking and continue to block land and water access to residents attempting to bring in necessary supplies to those who have chosen to remain and protect their homes. Fire hydrants have been shut off preventing access to water for firefighting.

Police ought to be concentrating their efforts on protecting vital fire equipment and preventing looting. Police should not be keeping food, water, and fuel from those who are endeavouring to save their own and their neighbours’ homes—such obstruction constitutes a real and avoidable threat to their survival.

Resources need to be invested in good-faith communication efforts to support organized, communally anchored and supported collaboration to fight the fires threatening Shuswap and Okanagan communities. The measure of civic responsibility is not passive compliance and communities are not created or run by experts. On the contrary, community responsibility is exercised by actions that are competent, collaborative, consensual, and based on shared knowledge of community needs.

A Celista Creek resident reports that help from fire fighters has not been readily available. On 17 August at about 4:00 pm, forestry and fire fighter personnel apparently set a back burn fire approximately 15 km from the end of Meadow Creek Road in Celista, at a time when strong winds were forecast for the area, and without notifying Celista residents. By midnight the fire had spread to the Meadow Creek property of a resident. When the resident sought help from nearby firefighters the resident was initially told that although the firemen wanted to help, they had orders to ‘sit’. Residents, eventually assisted by firefighters, were able to, at least temporarily, control the blaze. Police are now reported to be blocking land and water access, preventing residents who have stayed on their properties from receiving necessary supplies of gas, food and water.

This information points to government agents acting not to save but to harm the residents of the North Shuswap area. Government authorities have not acted to protect the safety of residents threatened by fire in Celista and the surrounding area. While residents have not received timely help from available firefighters, an inexplicably excessive police presence has been deployed to prevent community members, who have chosen to remain and defend their homes, from receiving necessary supplies.

We ask that you immediately put in place all measures necessary to ensure that residents are properly consulted and assisted in leaving or defending their properties and that residents are provided with:

a) fire threat notification.
b) timely firefighting help.
c) water for firefighting from functioning fire hydrants.
d) access to necessaries.
e) freedom to move supplies and machinery unimpeded by authorities.
f) answers regarding orders given to backburn, to prohibit volunteer efforts, to block supplies.

Please advise us of your actions to address these urgent needs.

Thank you in advance for taking the actions requested.


Gail Davidson
Dr. Matthew Evans Cockle

642 W Broadway, Vancouver, V5Z 1G1

TEL: 604-775-2453


PO Box 9047 Stn Provincial Government

Victoria, BC, V8W 9E2
Phone: (250) 387 – 1187  


107A – 2748 Lougheed Hwy, Port Coquitlam, V3B 6P2


Room 128 Parliament Buildings Victoria, BC V8V 1X4.

Phone: (250) 356-2178.

Fax: (250) 356-2965 …

10574 King George Boulevard
Surrey, BC   V3T 2X3

Phone: (604) 586-2740 

Fax: (604) 586-280

Room 138 Parliament Buildings

Victoria, BC  V8V 1X4

Phone: (250) 387-6240 

Fax: (250) 387-1040

North Shuswap firestorm 2023

By Jim Cooperman

Our home the night of the fire, photo by Angie Laryea

During the firestorm, a brave neighbour drove up the road to check on our place and took an amazing photo above of the hillside behind our home ablaze, yet the fire never went past the area that had been watered. This successful protection of our home should serve as a prime example of why everyone who lives in rural areas needs to do fire proofing to protect their homes.

A photo of our house the day after the fire

A fire caused by lightning started above the west side of Adams Lake on July 12th, grew slowly then initially exploded on July 20th due to a windstorm. Early in August, it moved down the hillside and if not for a huge effort by firefighters it would have destroyed homes and cabins along the lake. The fire continued to grow due to the winds and edged further southeast towards the North Shuswap community of Lee Creek, in the North Shuswap. By the third week of August it was about 6 km away from properties. When the weather report indicated that a strong northerly windstorm would hit on the evening of August 17th, the BC Wildfire Service made the extremely risky decision to use a controlled burn (a backburn) to reduce the fuel load in front of the fire.

They lit the backburn using a helicopter and ping-pong balls filled with sodium nitrate and anti-freeze. It was a massive fire that produced a giant mushroom cloud of smoke above the hills above our home. The next day the strong winds blew the combined fire down to Lee Creek, Scotch Creek and Celista, destroying approximately 100 homes, cabins, and businesses.

A view from our house of the initial smoke from the backburn moments after it was lit, photo by Kathi Cooperman

Another photo of the backburn minutes after it was lit, photo by Jim Cooperman

The fire also combined with another fire on east side of Adams Lake below the lake creating a firestorm that blew into Squilax, forcing the evacuation of the fire camp in a field and then destroying a gas station, homes and many cabins. It jumped across the Little Shuswap River and then destroyed homes north and south of the Squilax Bridge before moving up Squilax Mountain, east to the hills above Sorrento and south into Turtle Valley. This end of the fire continues to threaten the South Shuswap, Skimikin, Sorrento and as far away as Tappen.

A photo of me working on the spot fire near our home

I was able to return to my property the day after the fire swept through and with the help of a young WWOOFer from Germany, we began working on a spot fire that could have burned down our pump house and/or lit the remaining forest on fire and burned down a neighbour’s house. We used buckets from our pond initially, until a fire department truck arrived. It was doused multiple times and it kept coming back, because it was burning underground in tree roots. One of the many locals with a truck and water tank also came to help. When we finally left near dark, there was another fire truck dousing it. Then late that night it blew up again and the local returned to water it down. This example shows how difficult it is to deal with spot fires, that could continue for months.

A fire department crew from Vancouver Island again working on our spot fire at the end of the day. This fire continue to flare up for days afterwards and was again doused by both local and fire department fire fighters.

The main news story yesterday that continues today is that equipment used to keep a key bridge watered down was either stolen or “borrowed.” They use this story continuously to justify the heavy police lockdown, yet there many doubts about this story, because no one ever saw the equipment missing. The fire had swept by the area during the Friday night firestorm and there was no longer any threat to the bridge as there were no nearby spot fires and yet they continued to water the bridge. As well, the equipment being used is extremely heavy and would not be easy to take away.

Because of the road blockades and spike belts, the only way in and out is by boat. Many dozens  of boat owners have been volunteering their time to ferry people and supplies back and forth from the south shore to the north shore from marinas in Blind Bay and Sorrento and from private docks. Yet now police and conservation officers are out on the lake halting and chasing these boats, with the aid of police on shore using binoculars. As well, police have shown up at the marinas to block this effort.

The reason our home was saved is due to the fire smart work we have done over the past few years. We selectively logged our property, leaving most of the largest trees and near our home we removed most of the conifer trees. Knowing how dangerous decorative junipers are, we removed all the ones that posed a threat. On the day before the firestorm, we thoroughly watered the hillside behind our house, as that is where the fire would come from as lawns cover the yard in front of our house.

Interview with me – Listen and watch

A BC Wildfire Service map of the fire showing the evacuation order and alert zones as of August 20, 2023:

About The Author

Jim Cooperman

Author of the local best seller, Everything Shuswap, Jim Cooperman moved to the Shuswap in 1969 as a war resister and a back-to-the-lander, after receiving his BA from the University of California at Berkeley. Over the succeeding years, Jim taught school, worked in construction and log building, operated a sawmill, and edited a provincial environmental journal, the BC Environmental Report. His local environmental work led to the protection of over 25,000 hectares of new parks in the Shuswap, which is documented in the book, Big Trees Saved, by Deanna Kawatski. He has researched and written about local history and helped initiate and edit the local history journal, Shuswap Chronicles I and II. In 1993, he wrote the Chapter on Canada in Clearcut – The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry. And in 1998, he wrote Keeping the Special in Special Management Zones, A Citizens’ Guide, published by BC Spaces for Nature. Jim lives with his wife, Kathleen, in a log home they built on 40 acres above Shuswap Lake, where they raised five children. His column, “Shuswap Passion,” appears every two weeks in either the Shuswap Market News or the Salmon Arm Observer. Additionally, his YouTube channel has over 100 videos, including many that showcase live music, skiing and Shuswap geography.