Ottawa, Canada — Ottawa’s failure to provide B.C. natives with cash forlarge-scale firebreak construction in the pine-beetle-ravaged Interior is arecipe for disaster as forest fire season approaches, a British Columbiaaboriginal leader warned MPs yesterday.
“Make no mistake about this: Lives as well as livelihoods are on theline in the coming months,” Chief Bill Williams told the Commons naturalresources committee.
“The long-term survival of communities are at stake. I’m talking aboutschools and homes,” he said.
About 13 million hectares of B.C. Interior forest have been attacked by anexploding population of mountain pine beetles. This has left many trees dead ordying in an area the size of Greece. As it decays, the wood turns into drytinder, which is especially vulnerable to flame when forest fire season beginsin June, Mr. Williams said.
Inside this zone are about 103 native communities – representing 100,000people from 300 reserves, said Mr. Williams, speaking for the B.C. First NationsForestry Council.
“It’s a huge tinderbox … the aboriginal communities are starting tolive in real fear of the fast-approaching fire season.”
Mr. Williams called on MPs to press the Harper government to funnel more cashto native fire-abatement efforts. “It’s hoped this committee can raise thealarm bells and generate some action.”
He says at least $135-million is needed to create two-kilometre-widefirebreaks around all the 300 reserves and prepare evacuation plans for thesecommunities “most of which are in isolated, hard-to-access locations.”
The chief said the Tories should be able to find the cash because theypromised $1-billion during the last federal election campaign to combat theeffects of the pine beetle – cash that they’ve only started to dole out.
He said native leaders were expecting money for firebreaks in the Feb. 23federal budget, but none was offered.
Ray Schultz, an assistant deputy minister with the B.C. government who workson the pine beetle file, said about $9-million annually has been spent over thepast few years on reducing the risk of forest fires spreading to nearbycommunities in the Interior.
Mr. Schultz said an expert determines what solution is necessary in each caseand it’s not always deemed necessary to create a firebreak by logging trees tocreate a gap between the forest and a community. Sometimes the solution is toremove underbrush or dead trees that present a fire hazard, he said.
But federal Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn’s office said theConservatives in fact have been funding beetle mitigation programs for nativegroups in British Columbia. The Federal Mountain Pine Beetle Program hasunderwritten 45 projects for 35 bands worth $2.1-million, spokeswoman JasmineMacDonnell said.