Communication slammed at fire workshop

Communicationslammed at fire workshop

8 March 2008

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Canada — Parks Canada was raked over the coals Friday (Feb. 29) for itsability to communicate by members of the Banff community, with some of its ownstaff also taking aim at the process they have to go through to get informationto the public.

The discussion about how the massive department regulates its communicationscame up during a public workshop on the proposed fire management plan, whichdramatically changes how Parks will conduct prescribed burns over the next 10years, including summer burning and 10 burns near the townsite itself.

Brian Low, fire operations specialist for Parks Canada, said there is a realneed for real-time website updating during prescribed burns but there are rulesthat do not make that easy.

The discussion in the room touched upon how communications about what ishappening in the park has to go through channels all the way to Ottawa and backbefore it is approved, and how providing French translations causes delays.

Low said, for example, in 2003 there was a webcam looking directly at theFairholme bench prescribed burn that year, but it was not available for publicviewing.

Bert Goliath, head of security for The Banff Centre, expressed concern abouta repeat of the 2003 situation, which plunged the valley into smoke and ash, andhow the situation was communicated.

In addition to the prescribed burn, that year saw Kootenay National Park andparts of Kelowna go up in flames along with a number of other fires, making theentire summer one of the worst fire seasons ever.

“There really has to be a quantum change in how we communicate,”Goliath said. “Our comfort zone is a lot greater than the people who comehere.”

Others at Friday’s workshop shared the feeling that information about whatwas happening in 2003, and how it impacted the community, was scarce.

“I remember standing on my porch in 2003 with ash falling down andreally wondering what is going on,” said Banff Lake Louise Tourism CEOJulie Canning. “Saying in February or March that we are burning this springis unfathomable.”

Canning also expressed concern that the workshop was the first time thecommunity has learned of the new fire management plan, and noted its lack ofrecognition for economic impacts.

“We need you to recognize you are putting the economic livelihoods andrealities at risk through these actions,” she said. “There is not oneeconomic consideration taken into concern in this presentation.”

Low, however, rejected that, saying he has personally requested time toaddress the tourism lobby group and the Banff Hotel Motel Association at theirboard meetings on the subject.

Low said the way fire management has been done in the past has to change inorder to protect the Town of Banff, its residents and infrastructure from acatastrophic wildfire, which would most definitively destroy the economy.

“Each year we are given a constant reminder,” Low said. “The2007 Vermillion lakes fire was fortunately controlled and there was no loss offacilities but the outcome could have been much different.

“It could quite easily have jumped the Bow River on an average day inJuly.”

Low said fire would create an increase in the health and diversity of theecosystem and a reduced threat to the community, but some things need to change.

The plan applies to all the mountain national parks. In Banff it proposes 31individual fires over the next 10 years for a total of 52,799 hectares to beburned. The total area does not include situations where wildfires occurnaturally and are allowed to burn depending on a variety of factors, includinglocation, moisture level and season.

Low said in the past the bias has been toward spring burns, but with the newplan summer fires will be started and controlled in remote valleys. He said justburning in the spring does not allow fire to do what it needs to get the resultsParks Canada wants.

“We have been leaning towards spring to minimize the impacts to tourismbut we have been paying a huge ecological price for that.”

He said there would be absolutely no prescribed burns near the townsite or inthe Bow Valley during the summer months. Summer fires would also only be set ifthe right conditions were met, so smoke would not be blown towards Banff.

“We are working on a fully defensible safety zone around the entiretownsite perimeter,” he said. “It is important to our discussion todayto point out there are real human costs to being unprepared.”

Canning said her organization supports using prescribed burns but wantsmeaningful engagement of local businesses in deciding the how the plan should goforward.

“I do not think it is the ‘what’ that is controversial but the ‘how’ andthe engagement so far,” she said.

But Canning and others could not provide specific feedback of when fireswould be unacceptable, other than suggesting May 1 through to Sept. 31 is thehigh season for the industry.

“Timing is important; we do not want smoke during the prime destinationperiod,” said BLLT member Bart Donnelly.

That period represents 60 per cent of revenue and 80 per cent of theprofitability for members of the organization, Canning said.

Low said there is probably more correlation between the price of a barrel ofoil and the level of visitation than there is with smoke in the valley. Hecontinued to push tourism officials to be more specific about when theyabsolutely do not want burns to occur.

“It sounds to me like no time is a good time for the tourismindustry,” he said. “We all know nobody likes smoke, but we all knoweverybody is going to get smoke. So when would you like smoke?”

Canning also criticized the lack of economic research into the impact theproposed prescribed fire schedule would have and its effects of the visitorexperience – a concern echoed by others.

“We can be, as a community, one of the best prepared for a wildland/urbaninterface fire but we need to begin leading the way of economic research,”said Banff town manager Robert Earl.

Earl said the regional tourism market Banff depends on would slow down itsvisitation if the valley is full of smoke.

Canning said more research needs to be done to find out how much money thetourism industry loses for every day there is smoke in the valley. She said thetiming of fires is directly linked to its economic impact.

Grizzly bear expert Mike Gibeau also pointed out that timing is also integralto creating a prescribed burn that meets its objective. He said there is anexact prescription for a burn to occur, otherwise it burns too little or toomuch.

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