It has been nearly a year since the White Rock Lake wildfire swept through parts of Killiney Beach, B.C., on the west side of Okanagan Lake, but life is still far from back to normal.
Some who lost homes to the fire in August 2021 are still struggling with the basics like reconnecting to the local water system.
Those property owners are now speaking out about what they feel is an unreasonably high cost for resuming water service.
Among them is Sandy Brandt. Just to get water for day-to-day life she must run a hose to her neighbours’ house every few days.
Brandt, her husband and granddaughter moved back to the site of their former house in late May.
The family has been living in an RV and is still not connected to the local water system.
“Thank goodness we have wonderful neighbours because they are lending us water, but I feel that I shouldn’t have to and for that reason I’m showering every second day, my granddaughter is showering every second day,” said Brandt.
“It is extremely hard. You have to think [about] everything. You don’t realize until you have no water.”
Brandt said she wouldn’t have moved back if she had known there was no water.
The Killiney Beach resident said she has to pay over $4,700 for a new water meter and wait until September to reconnect to the local utility, which is owned and operated by the Regional District of Central Okanagan.
“That seems like an awful lot of money. I know my friends built down the way and four years ago they paid $1,500…so why is this so expensive? That’s not the normal price. I feel they are gouging us,” said Brandt.
“I don’t think we should pay all that money because of a fire that was not our fault.”
But despite not getting water, Brandt said she still needs to pay a portion of the utility fee, which adds up to $175 every three months.
“How do you feel when you can’t use the water you are paying for?” she asked.
Down the street seasonal resident Barry Gillrie, whose vacation property also burnt up in the blaze, is facing the same large fee to reconnect.
He is making do by paying his neighbour to connect to the neighbour’s water.
Gillrie said while the original water meter burnt in the fire, the connection to the water system was still there.
“All they have to do is drop a meter on top of it and we are good to go, but to do that they want $4,768,” Gillrie said.
“They won’t turn that water back on. I’m tempted sometimes to go out and cut the lock off but…then I would probably end up in jail.”
The regional district said the water meter delay is due to pandemic supply chain issues and the cost is because installing meters for RVs requires an inground structure called a “meter pit” that adds to the cost.
“The meter itself is relatively cheap, we are talking less than $1,000 for the meter and the installation, but the meter chamber, the excavation work required to put that [meter pit] in and some of the advanced testing that we are required [to do] post-wildfire for those community impacts, that is more expensive and that is how we get up to that $4,700 dollars,” said the Regional District of Central Okanagan’s manager of Engineering and Fire Services Travis Kendel.
“If we subsidize those rates that would mean their neighbours are paying the difference. In small community water systems, we just can’t do that. It’s not fair. We are looking at other options to help them out.”
Brandt is imploring the authorities to reconnect her without a meter, but the regional district says that is against the bylaws and unsafe.
“We ensure that everyone has a water meter in place so we know where the water is flowing, we can properly account for it and we make sure it is being used in a safe manner. Having connections without a water meter, without approval from the regional district, opens the system up for contamination,” Kendel said.
As for why Brandt is still paying a base utility fee without a water connection, Kendel says they are still part of the water system even without a useable connection.
“They benefit from the water system being there. It helps support things like firefighting efforts, [and] helps make sure they have a quick connection when it is time for them to rebuild. They are paying that portion that is not associated with water use,” Kendel said.
“Wildfires are terrible and the impacts on people are extreme. We just want to be there to help the best we can, but we can’t do everything.”
Both Gillrie and Brandt say they are facing other financial pressures related to the fire, and won’t pay over $4,700 for a new meter.
While Gillrie will go back to Red Deer in the winter, the situation leaves Brandt and her family in a difficult position as they wait for a rebuild that is expected to take roughly eight months.
“What am I going to do in the winter when everything freezes up? How are we going to get water through hoses?” Brandt wonders.
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