‘We are a ticking time bomb’: Belcarra mayor sounds alarm on wildfire threat

The Village of Belcarra has run out of water at least twice in the last few years while fighting house fires in the community

With the warm summer months approaching, the mayor of Belcarra is warning that the community may not have the water capacity to fight a significant fire.

According to Neil Belenkie, the mayor and a former volunteer firefighter, the village has twice run out of water while battling house fires over the last few years. Without an expanded reservoir, he fears that a major blaze could easily spread into the trees surrounding the village and turn into a wildfire.

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“If a fire is going to get out of control, it is absolutely more likely to happen in Belcarra,” Belenkie told The Tri-City News, noting most of the houses are in close proximity to the forest. 

Currently, he said the village has a reservoir with enough capacity to allow firefighters to douse a blaze for approximately one hour — not even enough time to fight a standard house fire. 

Belcarra Mayor Neil Belenkie - File photo

Hooking up to the region’s water system will cost tens of millions of dollars, he added, and could only happen if higher levels of government stepped in to help with the cost. 

Instead, Belcarra council is hoping it will receive a $3.8 million infrastructure grant from the provincial government, which will allow for the construction of an expanded reservoir.

“We are a ticking time bomb for the entire region,” he said. “It needs to get done.”

Belenkie has seen first hand what happens when a major fire breaks out in the village.

Before becoming mayor, he was a firefighter with the Sasamat Volunteer Fire Department, and remembers the first time the village ran out of water while crews battled a blaze in 2017.

Belcarra Mayor Neil Belenkie said he fears a house fire in his community could quickly spread into the forest and start a wildfire. - THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The second time it happened later in the year at an incident on Senkler Road, where he remembers the sinking feeling of having to turn the hoses off on a fully involved blaze while crews waited for more water to come into the reservoir.

“We have a water technician with a phone app,” he said. “The moment the reservoir gets to its bare minimum, he yells ‘shut it down.’ We have to turn the water off and wait for a minute or two for there to be enough to start again.”

He added: “All I could do is just sit and watch as it came close to becoming a wildfire.”

In the Senkler Road fire, he said he feared that the flames would spread into the nearby forested area and possibly cut off the only road access into the community. 

“It would have blocked off all exits out of Belcarra,” he said. 

Port Moody-Coquitlam MLA Rick Glumac - File photo

Rick Glumac, NDP MLA for Port Moody-Coquitlam supports the infrastructure initiative, but said he did not have any insights into whether the grant application would be successful. 

In the meantime, Belenkie said the community will continue to focus on educating the public about fire safety when they visit Belcarra.

“Education in the short-term while we figure this out financially,” he said. “That is going to be our best firefighting technique.”

The concerns come on the back of a recently released study out of University of British Columbia that found smoke has the potential to make viral respiratory infections such as COVID-19 even more severe.

Lead author Jiayun Angela Yao said rapid public health action to limit smoke exposure is vital because the pandemic remains a serious threat as the wildfire season approaches.

-with files from Canadian Press

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