A proposal that would create a single fire service for the Creston Valley inched closer to reality after a meeting on July 14. Town of Creston and Regional District of Central Kootenay officials met with representative of Creston Fire and Rescue and fire departments in Yahk, Canyon-Lister, Wynndel-Lakeview and West Creston to discuss the plan.
“We want to move this ahead for the benefit of both parties — the Town of Creston and RDCK,” said Coun. Tanya Ducharme, who facilitated the meeting. “I want to move this forward.”
Creston fire chief Bruce Mabin said that a working group of fire departments had met “20 or 30 times” to find common ground. The group put forward an agreement in which no existing service levels would be reduced, that fire protection would be an RDCK service operated by the Town of Creston and that one large valleywide service would be formed to take advantage of “economies of scale”.
“I think we covered it all and felt like we have a good plan,” he said. “We couldn’t find a negative about it.”
But if getting fire departments to agree on the plan wasn’t challenging enough, finding a governance model acceptable to the RDCK and Town of Creston could become an even greater hurdle.
Terry Swann, the RDCK fire chief who oversees 17 rural fire departments, wasn’t as enthusiastic about the proposal.
“This model doesn’t work anywhere else in the province so why should it work here?” asked Swann, a 30-year veteran firefighter and chief from the Lower Mainland. “They (other regional districts) are telling me it doesn’t work.”
Swann was adamant that a Creston Valley regional service must be operated by the RDCK and that the Town of Creston, if it wants to be part of the service, would have to roll Creston Fire and Rescue into the mix.
“That is the direction I’ve received from my employer,” he said.
While Area C director Larry Binks focused on the potential costs to taxpayers (West Creston currently does not have formal fire protection services), Creston town manager Lou Varela countered that it was too early in the process to discuss finance and that the priority should be exploring governance models.
“If we focus on dollars we are bypassing the issue, from my point of view,” she said. “Do we still all agree how we got to this point? Do we agree on the big picture ideas?”
Responding to Swann’s reiteration that “my directors say that it must be an RDCK service,” Ducharme said, “We (town council) thought we were working with a plan to create a sub-region in under the RDCK. There is obviously a misunderstanding, probably on both sides.”
Area A director Garry Jackman said the challenge was to find a governance model.
“We are really talking about how we knit ourselves together to share our taxpayers’ interest and money,” he said. “We need to find a mechanism that makes sense to us all.”
“From my perspective, we are focusing on minutiae,” Area B director and RDCK chair John Kettle said. “We can’t say, ‘What’s in it for us?’ We are all in the same valley. The number one problem is not who’s in charge, it’s who’s going to fight the fires.”
Volunteer fire departments throughout the province are struggling to attract and maintain volunteers, he said.
Kettle said the Town of Creston has delivered a mixed message to the RDCK. In one letter, he said, the town said it was pulling out of regional fire service discussions and another says it agrees in principal.
“I think we can find a way to make this work,” he said. “But we are probably a year away from being able to take a plan to the people.”
What form that plan takes, he admitted, will be influenced by the outcome of this fall’s local government elections.