Residents of the UniverCity neighborhood on Burnaby Mountain are asking the provincial government to expedite archaeological reviews of two new fire halls that will serve the area.
In May, city council officially approved a $50.4-million contract for stations #4 (on Duthie Avenue near the base of the mountain) and #8 (located on the mountain itself).
There is already a fire station in the Duthie Ave area, but it is well-aged at 66 years old and does not meet the fire department’s current needs.
As part of the development process for the two fire halls, the city says it reached out to local First Nations, which have asked that Burnaby obtain archaeology permits from the province to assess the sites.
Mario Guisado, president of the UniverCity Community Association, has now written to Forests Minister Katrine Conroy to ask her office to expedite those reviews.
Guisado says the Burnaby Mountain community is underserved from a fire perspective—something that Burnaby’s fire department and city council have also acknowledged for at least 20 years.
A 2002 city report found that SFU and the Burnaby Mountain area was one of three areas in Burnaby where fire department response times “consistently exceeded the desired standard.”
“We really started advocating strongly in the last three years. But there’s been a need up here—once the population hit over 4,000, from a permanent population in UniverCity that there’s been this need for a fire station and better fire services,” Guisado said.
He added there are now about 8,000 full-time residents of Burnaby Mountain, in addition to the thousands of visitors to SFU every day.
In his letter to Conroy, he describes the need for the new fire stations as “urgent”.
Apart from the physical distance between the UniverCity area and the nearest fire station at Duthie Avenue, which can slow the response, his letter pointed to the nearby Trans Mountain tank farm as contributing to the “immediate danger” of a fire.
“In the event of an accident at the facility, or a fire in the adjacent forest, our community will be completely cut off from escape and emergency responders, as the only road in and out of the community passes next to the facility,” he wrote.
Guisado told the Beacon, however, that while the Trans Mountain terminal has raised concerns among the community, his main driver is in making sure there are day to day emergency services available for mountain residents.
“The concern really has been in time for response. We’re at the top of Burnaby Mountain and the fire stations are generally at the bottom of the hill. When there is an emergency, on average … It takes 15 to 20 minutes for a fire truck to get up to the mountain, and then to respond and to find the place,” he said in an interview with the Beacon.
“… We started looking as well at what the averages were and what commitments the city made around fire response. And we noticed that, on average, we were above that, and then this community was a little bit underserved.”
Meanwhile, the question of how the city would coordinate a mass evacuation off the mountain if necessary has also been one that UniverCity residents have been asking for several years. There are only two main roads that go up and down Burnaby Mountain—Burnaby Mountain Parkway and Gaglardi Way.
“We’re not aware of any plan. That’s part of the conversation we want to start. If we do need to evacuate the mountain, how would we do it? If that access point, that bottleneck, for some reason is unusable, what is the plan to get folks off the mountain?” Guisado told News1130 in 2019.
Fire department Chief Chris Bowcock told the Beacon last year that if an evacuation was necessary, a gondola up to SFU would help significantly in coordinating those efforts.
But he also pointed out that in the event of a fire, evacuation may not be the most effective way to keep residents safe.
Likewise, Guisado said that the fire department has said residents are more likely to be told to shelter in place if there is a fire on the mountain.
With that in mind, his main priority is to approach the topic of safety on the mountain from a multi-faceted perspective.
“… Making sure we have an emergency plan for the community that takes everything into account. So is it a gondola? Maybe, maybe not. It just depends on the situation,” he said.
“I think the shelter in place guidance is probably where we start [in the event of a fire]. And in order to have that be effective, that’s why we want a fire station up here. Because it helps support that shelter in place [guidance].”
In an emailed statement, the Ministry of Forests said the two fire halls have been identified for expedited review by the Archaeology Branch—and said that consultation with local First Nations is a priority.
“The [archaeology] branch is waiting for clarification on some points of the application, and then, in upholding the province’s duty to consult, affected First Nations will have a chance to comment before any approval can take place,” the ministry said.
“While we understand the urgency, we currently don’t have a specific timeline, as appropriate consultation with First Nations must conclude first.”
In July, the federal government committed $30 million towards the Burnaby Mountain fire hall in response to concerns from residents.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that the new Station #4 on Duthie Ave will be rebuilt on the same site as the previous Duthie Ave fire hall, built in 1956. In fact, it will be built on a different site and the City of Burnaby plans to share details about the location soon.