Burned-out vehicles, piles of trash, road signs riddled with bullet holes and thousands upon thousands of spent shell casings of every calibre: All are common sights on the east side of Stave Lake.
A drive down Sylvester Road leads to the Lost Creek Forest Service Road, a gateway for activities both legal and illegal. Not unlike Stave Lake West, this area has become ground zero for uncontrolled partying and shooting.
The Fraser Valley Regional District is currently investigating a new bylaw to restrict the use of firearms, but for now Stave Lake East echoes with gunfire.
What many weekend warriors don’t realize is the area is far from deserted. In fact, dozens of people live along a section of shoreline, enduring the constant sound of gunfire.
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A few miles up the Lost Creek Forest Service Road is the home of Dan Fowle. An avid camper and outdoorsman, Fowle has always wanted to live off the grid.
“I’m just an enjoyer of nature,” he said.
He has lived in the Stave East area for the past 12 years and has witnessed a steady decline in livability.
“For the first three years it was pretty rare to hear a gunshot and extremely rare to see garbage.”
But then he started to notice changes. More and more 4x4s started to populate the area on weekends and volleys of gunfire rolled among the hills.
“It turned into a complete dump. It’s insane.”
During his daily activities, Fowle said he runs into “all sorts of extremely inebriated people” shooting in any direction.
Many have hung targets in trees, rather than against soil or gravel banks which would absorb the bullets.
“I don’t know what you would call these shooters. They’re not really enthusiasts. They are just guys who buy guns and want to shoot them somewhere where they don’t have to worry about regulations.”
He said the danger is growing.
“We joke that we’d feel at home in Afghanistan because it gets to the point where it’s ridiculous.”
To his point, a well-known shooting site in the area is known as “Little Iraq.”
He believes the situation has gotten out of hand.
“It’s not rare to drive around a corner and see somebody on both sides of the corner shooting at each other without even realizing it.”
But the danger really hit home for Fowle when his family’s safety was threatened.
“I had to call the RCMP when somebody came up with a truck-mounted 50-calibre and started shooting at my property from about a kilometre and a half away. And actually hitting locations on my property.”
Even more unsettling is the presence of a 1,500-litre propane tank Fowle keeps on his land.
“A 50-calibre round will go through that like butter.”
As he waited for police to show up, the shooting continued and he was forced to evacuate his kids.
Fowle blames the danger on ignorance, noting that most of the shooters don’t know there are homes in the bush along a section of the lakeshore. Of the 32 cabins in the area, Fowle said his is the only one occupied year-round. However, during the summer months, all the homes have residents.
Now Fowle is concerned that the problem will get worse.
The District of Mission recently announced its plans to combat similar problems on the west side of Stave Lake by developing a family-friendly recreational plan to open the area up to controlled recreational activities.
Fowle fears the initiative will drive even more shooters and off-road adventurers to the east side of the lake.
“Gun (web) sites are even advertising the area.”
While the Mission RCMP does its best to patrol the area, Fowle said he does a lot of self-patrolling.
“If I hear a weapon that’s close enough that it might be in range, I go find these people. I take the truck out and I explain to them that they are shooting in a residential area and I tell them where they can go where it’s safe to shoot.”
Most people are co-operative, but he is having to go out two or three times a day.
“I hope it won’t take someone getting shot before they take this more seriously.”
He doesn’t plan to go anywhere; rather, he wants the Mission RCMP and the Fraser Valley Regional District to take safety action.
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Sitting behind his desk at Mission RCMP headquarters, Insp. Ted De Jager acknowledged that the east side of Stave Lake, like the west, is an ongoing project.
“There are some wild areas that we are looking at, both wild in terms of it is truly beautiful, pristine country, and wild in terms of some of the activities that go on there.”
While not part of the District of Mission – Sylvester Road and the surrounding area are part of Area F in the Fraser Valley Regional District – it still falls under the responsibility of the Mission RCMP.
The Mission detachment has two components – 50 members for the municipality and six members funded by the province.
“Stave East, what we call Sylvester Road, and up through that area, that’s technically where the six come in. That’s why the province funds us,” he said.
However, the department does not operate separately – all 56 members can work in any part of the coverage area.
While the police are “very mindful” of what’s occurring on the Sylvester side and patrols do service the area, there are challenges.
Under the firearms act, it is legal to shoot in provincial areas a safe distance off a forest service road.
“So places like Little Iraq … are problematic because it’s technically legal for somebody to shoot there.
“Target practice is totally legal as long as it’s done in a safe direction, in a safe manner, and that’s where we get into the problems.”
De Jager said the department is exploring how to lay charges of dangerous use of a firearm, which is a criminal offence.
For example, shooting into trees rather than into a bank can be considered dangerous. Police also need to consider where people are shooting firearms. The law states that as long as you are not on someone’s property, or shooting into someone’s property, you can shoot from Crown land into Crown land, explained De Jager.
Another concern is restricted firearms.
“Pistols can’t be shot there’ they must be shot on a range,” said De Jager, adding that using high-capacity magazines is an arrestable offence. Discarded ammo and the sound of extended, semi-automatic gunfire suggest both illegal activities occur in the area.
In order to educate the public on what is against the law, the Mission RCMP have been setting up information sites at the entrances to both Stave Lake West and East as part of a preventive blitz.
“It’s not that we are trying to deny anybody of their lawful enjoyment of Crown land. That’s not what we’re doing at all, but there has to be a tipping point between your lawful enjoyment and the safety of the people who live there. We have to protect them as well.”
Along with the information booths, a two-member patrol covers the area every weekend, using everything from trucks and ATVs to boats.
“It’s a multi-faceted approach.”
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While Stave West has municipal bylaws to help control shooting, the same can’t be said for the east side.
Ray Boucher knows all about the goings-on at Stave East. The local hunter and director of Electoral Area F lives just off Sylvester Road and has seen first-hand the dangerous activities.
He, along with Area E director Orion Engar, have teamed up to propose a new bylaw for that area and others in the Fraser Valley Regional District that are experiencing similar difficulties.
The purpose of the proposed bylaw is to create restrictions as to where firearms can be used.
According to a staff report to the FVRD, the proposed bylaw calls for a no-firearm discharge within 400 metres (one-quarter of a mile) of specific forest service roads, in any direction.
That would force recreational shooters to move farther into the woods, and away from inhabited areas, before legally discharging their guns. If the bylaw is passed, it would not only impact the Lost Creek Forest Service Road (FSR) in Stave East, but would also apply to the Carratt Road FSR in Area F as well as FSRs in Electoral Area E (Chilliwack Lake and Slesse Creek FSR), Area C (Chehalis, Morris Valley and Lake Errock FSR) and Area G (Norrish Creek and Florence Lake FSR).
Provincial approval is required to enact the legislation.
Boucher feels the FVRD will likely give the new bylaw three readings by the end of September, then send it off to the province for final approval.
But more adjustments could be needed. Boucher said along with the 400-metre restriction from the road, he’d like to see gun enthusiasts have to travel 20 kilometres along the Lost Creek FSR and into the forest before being allowed to shoot.
“Let’s do it safely and out of the way.”
Passing the bylaw would give the RCMP the power to ticket violators. Without changes, Boucher is worried about the consequences.
“It’s only a matter of time before somebody is going to get seriously injured or killed,” said Boucher. “With all the ATVs out there and people discharging firearms, it’s not a good recipe.”