WHITEHORSE, Yukon – After a summer that saw six per cent of its forests go up in smoke, its second biggest town put on evacuation alert, and tourists fleeing or staying away in droves, the Yukon government is launching a review of the way it fights fires. Ottawa picked up the tab for this fire fighting season, but that won’t be the case in a few years
Ottawa picked up the tab for this fire fighting season, but that won’t be the case in a few years A five-person panel, made up of out-of-province experts and local fire managers, will conduct the independent review of the summer’s record-setting events. It cost $20 million to fight hundreds of fires this season, the busiest season in 50 years. More than 273 fires raged over 1.8 million hectares of land double the previous record, set in 1958 and area 15,000 square kilometers in size. The summer was among the hottest and driest on record, and lightning sparked the vast majority of fires. A territory-wide fire ban may have helped keep human-caused fires down to only 20.
Impact on Mining Yukon’s fire season may also cause a legal nightmare for the territory’s miners. Not only did operating placer operations lose hundreds of thousands of dollars during the worst of the season, prospectors may have lost even more. Chamber of Mines president Scott Casselman says the cost of restaking mining claims could go into the millions. In fact, it’s not even clear if the claims are still valid, says Casselman. The industry is worried the burned off areas might be wide open for staking. “There were a couple of occurrences this year where stakers had just completed staking and went to record their claims, and may have actually recorded and within days their claims were wiped out… all those posts were wiped out,” he says. Casselman would like to see a recommendation giving miners time to re-stake their claims.
Those kind of numbers made a review imperative.
“Given the extreme fireloads, the extreme weather conditions that were responsible for those fireloads, the amount of activity, the expenditures of $21 million, it really presents an opportunity to take a look at the big picture with respect to the fire program,” says Cliff Smith, the panel chair and a retired deputy minister of forestry for Alberta. The panel members have decades of fire-fighting experience to back up their recommendations The panel members have decades of fire-fighting experience to back up their recommendations Community services spokesperson Matt King says the review will look at all aspects of the territory’s fire management to see where improvements might be made.
Funding for the future
There’s also a sense of urgency to make sure the territory’s spending its money wisely. This year, much of the tab for the fires was picked up by the federal government, under the devolution agreement. But Ottawa will phase out of fire-fighting in three years, leaving the territory with the bill. “There is a clause in the devolution agreement that leaves the door cracked open a little bit where it refers the parties can get together and discuss this issue the cost for suppression of fires,” says Dan Boyd, the director of protective services for Community Services, the department that fights fires in the territory. “But there’s no commitment by Canada, there would be any assistance after year five .” With climate change predicting even warmer summers and worse fire seasons ahead, the territory has to develop new strategies. Boyd says he’s confident the committee will be helpful when it comes to funding recommendations for the fire program down the road. “They appreciate the size of the Yukon, the population of the Yukon, the amount of resources the Yukon may be able to have in the future to manage the program with, there’ll be a degree of reality I’m sure to their work,” he says.
The panel plans will visit communities during the process, and are expected to have a report on the minister’s desk in spring 2005, before the next fire season.