Burns Lake Search and Rescue (SAR) manager and Village of Burns Lake emergency program co-ordinator, John Rempel recently received the 2013 Search and Rescue Volunteer of the Year award from B.C. Attorney General and Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton in Victoria.
Rempel has been a volunteer with SAR and Burns Lake emergency preparedness since 1989.
“I had just finished a wildfire plan for the forest service, so I felt well-prepared for the work,” Rempel recalled. “But there was a lot more to it [emergency preparedness] when you look at all kinds of disasters, not just wildfires. But I put a plan together.”
Rempel’s 35 years working for the B.C. forest service saw the ministry go through many name changes (now encompassed under the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations). In Rempel’s time, the fire protection service was not the stand-alone Wildfire Management Branch we are familiar with today.
“In the early years, the [forest] fires were just part of our job,” Rempel said. “We had three fire information teams in the late 80s and early 90s until the fire protection service separated from the regular service. I was in charge of one of those three-man teams for a number of big fires, like the 1994 Garnet fire.”
The Garnet fire was a complicated urban interface fire near Penticton B.C. that spread quickly to over 13,500 acres in size, destroyed 18 homes, required the evacuation of more than 3,500 people, and cost $5 million to put out.
Today, Rempel’s challenges involve smaller scale events, but events nonetheless very traumatic to the people affected. This past summers was a challenging season for Burns Lake Search and Rescue (SAR) volunteers.
“At one point we had three searches going on at the same time,” Rempel said. “We had the Takysie Lake one, a Saskatoon-berry picker in Eagle Creek and a missing boater on Ootsa Lake… With three going at one time you’re really trying to keep everything straight.”
As SAR manager and emergency services co-ordinator, Rempel is the primary co-ordinator between the Burns Lake SAR, RCMP, the Village of Burns Lake, the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako and regional SAR units. He is also a volunteer member of Mennonite Disaster Services, a North American organization that helps rebuild homes after disaster strikes the elderly, handicapped, or others in need. His position with them is to scout ares in Central B.C. after disaster strikes to see if a project is required.
One of Rempel’s biggest challenges these days is SAR recruitment.
“A lot of people have moved away,” he said. “A lot of our people are outdoor logger types and they’re busy in the winter. Most of them are there if we need them, but we need more people willing to go through the ground SAR training and become certified.”
Certification for ground SAR qualifications involves some study over the winter and two weekends of field training in the spring. All of the training is done in Burns Lake and there is plenty of opportunity to advance.
“If you [can] get more qualifications, like team leader or search manager,” Rempel said. “There’s all kinds of specialties, like swift water rescue or avalanche rescue, [but] flat ice rescue and boat rescue are important here.”
The Burns Lake SAR will have an intake in the new year, and a few potential new members have shown interest. Rempel would like to see at least six new members, a good number for group training, but he said they would train new members one-on-one if required.
Modern SAR work isn’t just working in the field during call-outs; it requires people trained and capable of handling the computer and administrative side of a call-out.
“Not only do we need people doing the hiking through the bush, we need people with computer and computer mapping abilities,” Rempel explained. “A few people who maybe can’t hike through the bush but can do some of that kind of stuff would be very helpful.”
For more information on joining the Burns Lake SAR, contact either of the local SAR managers, Rempel or Bill Imus. Rempel can be reached at 250-692-6395.
“It’s been a lot of fun, but there’s been moments of almost anguish when things don’t turn out right,” Rempel recalls of his long volunteer history with SAR. “It’s a way of giving back to the community.”