Volunteer firefighters are back on the job in this community hard-hit by a massive jet fuel spill last month.
The 19 firefighters left their posts earlier this week when their fire chief was suspended for insubordination, but the suspension was revoked at a meeting Thursday night.
Brian Carruthers, chief administrative officer for the Regional District of Central Kootenay, said the matter has been referred to a committee of four fire chiefs that will examine the circumstances that led up to the suspension.
“This is an opportunity for a learning experience and if there are any glitches or misinterpretation in policy, that we tighten those things up moving forward,” Mr. Carruthers said.
The controversy erupted after the regional district asked the Winlaw volunteer fire department to provide traffic control for a community meeting July 30. The meeting was to provide local residents with information after a tanker truck rolled off a logging road days earlier and spilled 35,000 litres of jet fuel meant for aircraft fighting area forest fires.
The fuel spilled into Lemon Creek, and forced the evacuation of about 1,500 people as a result of the fumes. A recently filed lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court alleges an 80-kilometre stretch of shoreline along a creek and two rivers in the southern B.C. area was also wiped out.
The volunteer firefighters say after spending hours going door-to-door and helping with evacuation efforts, their members wanted to attend the meeting as citizens to get information. The meeting, they maintained, was a non-emergency and not part of their jobs as volunteers and they weren’t insured to do the work anyway.
Chief Jon Wollenberg refused to have his members do traffic control and was suspended for insubordination. The others resigned in solidarity, forcing the district to call upon two volunteer fire departments in Passmore and Slocan to cover off Winlaw.
Chief Wollenberg was not immediately available on Friday. However, after his suspension, he said in a comment posted to the online Nelson News that the discipline wasn’t warranted.
“I believe that demanding a volunteer fire department respond to a non-emergency goes against the principles of what this group has volunteered to accomplish,” he said.
“I recognize that due to the seriousness and risk of what a fire department encounters, it is critical that we have a chain of command and any objections to an operation be voiced in an incident debriefing and not at the scene of an incident.”
“However if no emergency exists, I do not believe the regional fire chief should demand actions from volunteer firefighters,” Chief Wollenberg said.
Mr. Carruthers said Friday the four fire chiefs will review everything surrounding the circumstances of Chief Wollenberg’s suspension. He said the Winlaw crew had never been asked to perform such services before, but the community meeting was an unusual circumstance.
“They’ll be looking at all of it and I will be briefing them on their task and they’ll be given latitude to look into it as deep as they feel they need to. I have no doubt that they will,” he said.
“We’re going to turn this into a positive and have a benefit,” Mr. Carruthers said, adding a personality conflict also appears to have added to the problem.
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