Canada — Saying he was “very frustrated” at people continuing to build campfires and discard cigarettes in the back country, Forests Minister Pat Bell said Thursday he’s going to throw the book at them.
With more forest fires burning in B.C. covering more ground than this date in 2003, the year of the devastating Kelowna fire, Bell said he may also order a total closure of the back country to travel during this extreme forest fire hazard period unless people change their habits.
Bell said he’s now unleashed 200 compliance and enforcement officers around the province, along with another 140 forests ministry staff and conservation officers who have been ordered to ticket everyone who is found around a campfire.
As nearly 4,000 firefighters, using 400 aircraft and hundreds of pieces of machinery try to get a handle on 825 current wildfires, Bell said the province is waging a successful battle. But he was disgusted to find that over the long weekend the public reported more than 300 campfires being lit by inconsiderate people.
“I am very frustrated about the things I see going on in our forests,” told reporters in what he promised will be a weekly briefing.
“I have now directed all of our compliance and enforcement staff to take a zero tolerance enforcement approach. There is not going to be any warnings any more for anyone caught in the bush, whether it is discarding a cigarette or lighting a campfire. It will immediately lead to a fine.”
Bell recounted an incident he personally encountered while camping last weekend in the Shuswap. He watched as some boaters came ashore near him and lit a roaring campfire in the bush. After donning a forest service hat and telling them who he was, they put the fire out.
The minister said he didn’t have a ticket book with him or else he would have given them a fine.
Bell said officers have already handed out 54 campfire tickets – worth $345 each – in three fire districts. Ministry of Forest staff also found 100 campfires, including five that had been abandoned and which could have easily caught nearby forests on fire.
But he’s now told staff to enforce a “zero tolerance” limit, and wants them to give a ticket to each person found around campfires, regardless of whether they were the ones who lit them or simply tend them.
Bell said he’s also worried about people entering the back country and getting caught behind fire lines. “We could ruin our record in terms of no loss of life,” he said.
Currently about 5,000 people have been evacuated around the province and another 4,000 are on alert.
Bell said so far this year there have been 2,326 wildfires in B.C., about 800 more than 2003.
Overall, at least 85,000 hectares have gone up in smoke, compared to 81,000 in 2003. However, only three homes have been destroyed in the Glenrosa fire in West Kelowna.
The cost to B.C. has been enormous: so far it has spent $134.5 million, far outstripping its original budget of $62 million. However, the minister said he also has statutory authority to spend whatever he needs and he will do so until every fire is out.
Bell said cooling weather this week has helped firefighters, but the long-range trend is for hot weather and he thinks matters will get worse.
Bell also rejected comments by an Australian firefighting expert who suggested B.C. is too quick to issue evacuation alerts and orders, citing more liberal evacuation policies of Australia and California.
“I totally reject that notion,” Bell said. “Australia is the jurisdiction that lost 169 lives last year. So we’re going to continue to be proactive, we’re going to continue to issue evacuation alerts and orders where appropriate.”
On the manpower front, Bell said the forest service decided not to call in the Canadian Forces for help, as they had done in 2003 when 1,000 soldiers helped mop up fires throughout the Okanagan.
Bell said the military said it could only provide 250 soldiers this year. Six weeks ago the forests ministry issued a call for people to train as firefighters and it received 550 applications. Of those, 250 are now on fire lines and the rest are completing their course training, the minister said.