Deal with wildfire threat now, B.C. forest watchdog warns

Deal with wildfire threat now, B.C. forest watchdog warns

03 February 2010

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Canada —  Local governments need to impose stricter controls on new subdivisions where nearby forests pose a fire risk, says a report released Wednesday by the Forest Practices Board.

The report, Managing Forest Fuels in the Wildland Urban Interface, says the task is huge in clearing the threat of forest fires in areas where there is human development.

For starters, developers should be required to deal with wildfire risks in nearby forests before municipalities approve their projects, states the report.

“Years of very successful fire suppression, dry weather, insect infestations and increasing and uncoordinated development across the forest landscape have combined to create ideal conditions for catastrophic wildfires affecting thousands of people,” the report warns.

The Forest Practices Board is the provincially appointed independent forest watchdog.

It sounds an alarm, urging municipalities to act now in addressing wildfire concerns, saying only 35,000 hectares of forestlands have been treated to date. The province has identified 685,000 hectares at high risk of what is termed an urban interface fire — a fire that threatens developed areas.

Besides requiring developers to be responsible for mitigation measures before local governments issue permits, the board recommends:

• Local governments take more advantage of existing wildfire programs and build on the experience of other municipalities that have undertaken the work.

• The province needs to make fuel management programs easier for local governments. Often the wildfire interface area includes Crown lands, which bring a number of jurisdictional issues to the fore.

Union of B.C. Municipalities president Harry Nice said in an interview that the report makes some critical recommendations that member municipalities will be examining. However, local governments often face hardships in raising money to undertake wildfire suppression programs, he said.

The province has committed staff and funding to aid municipalities in managing forest fuels but the current cost-sharing ratio requires local governments to come up with 25 per cent of the cost of wildfire protection programs.

“This is something that the UBCM supports and provincial funding, of course, is going to largely be part of the implementation of this,” Nice said.

Nice said cooperation with developers in reducing wildfire risk is important but that municipalities need to have further discussion on the issue before they implement new regulations.

The Forest Practices Board examined 50 programs now underway in municipalities, It said they have successfully navigated “what can be, at times, a difficult road.”

It points out that in some municipalities, developers are required to meet specific standards in the forest/urban interface.

North Cowichan, for example, amended its community plan to require a developer to construct and maintain a 10-metre-wide fuel-free zone around a proposed subdivision. Further, building materials had to meet specific fire ratings.

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