Wildfire officials and B.C. Premier David Eby warned residents not to tamper or steal firefighter equipment as they try to mitigate several out-of-control wildfires.
According to the B.C. Wildfire Service (BCWS), an unknown number of assailants tampered with pumps, hoses, sprinklers and one ATV over the past two days in Scotch Creek and neighbouring communities.
"We'll put the best possible understanding on this that people think they're helping. They are not," Eby told reporters on Monday.
"The equipment is put there for a reason, and when it's not [there] when the firefighters go to get it, that is a big problem."
BCWS Information Officer Forrest Tower told reporters that equipment crucial to their operations went missing over the weekend, causing considerable delays for some fire crews.
"We don't want that to be the focus of first responders. We want them to be able to be focused on firefighting," emphasized Tower.
As first reported by City News Vancouver, Tower gave the example of the Bush Creek East wildfire, which grew to over 41,000 hectares in size after two fires merged Saturday night.
The wildfire official said the stolen equipment endangered their efforts near the Scotch Creek bridge and Celista, where wildfires forced evacuation orders and destroyed local homesteads.
According to the BCWS, they are missing at least 15 sets of equipment, including multiple pumps, hoses and sprinklers, and one ATV critical to their operation.
Tower said they've had to replace a full-gear setup four times along the bridge over two days. "It is not OK what's happening."
On Monday, B.C. RCMP informed the public not to interfere with BCWS crews, adding it "not only endangers your safety but also hinders their vital work."
"Please be aware that if their operations are disrupted, they may have no choice but to relocate to a safer area," said the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District.
"Additionally, tampering with equipment jeopardizes the safety of everyone involved. The pumps, sprinklers, hoses and ATVs that have been taken are critically impacting the effectiveness of structural protection."
Tower confirmed Monday that an unknown number of assailants also took equipment from the nearby communities of Magna Bay and Lee Creek. He urged residents to come forward with any information that could lead to the recovery of said equipment.
As of writing, BCWS has yet to find the missing equipment.
Derek Sutherland, director of the emergency operations centre for the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District, told the CBC that the stolen equipment may have been taken to protect private property.
"I understand people are naturally concerned about their home, and they panic and make decisions that aren't rational. I think that's what we're seeing," he said.
B.C. RCMP confirmed officers have increased their presence in the area but have not provided any details on the reported thefts.
Rebel News reached out to local RCMP for comment. They did not provide an update on the stolen equipment other than to say, "We are securing the fire zones."
Despite the heightened police presence, Tower said some residents refused to comply with evacuation orders, proceeding to throw garbage at firefighters.
"We're having garbage thrown at fire trucks as they're trying to work in that area," he told the CBC.
On Friday, West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund reported the McKinley and Clifton wildfire near West Kelowna trapped some crew members after residents refused to evacuate.
"That's a fire chief's worst nightmare," he said.
RCMP Staff Sergeant Kris Clark clarified that "attempts to interfere with their efforts, intimidate responders, or tamper with emergency equipment will not be tolerated and could result in criminal charges."
"We cannot emphasize enough the critical importance of evacuating areas under an evacuation order. Your safety and the safety of our responders are our top priorities."
As of Tuesday evening, the province remains in a state of emergency, with an estimated 27,000 people subject to evacuation orders and thousands more on evacuation alert.