Canada — Imagine enjoying a cool drink on a hot summer’s day at a sidewalk café and getting a frantic call that a bush fire is raging on your street and several houses are on fire. Not in Vancouver, you say? Don’t count on it.
When forests get dry enough for long enough, they burn, meaning that even homes in West Vancouver and North Vancouver could be vulnerable to the type of conflagration witnessed on the periphery of Kelowna in 2003, a summer fire that destroyed 334 homes and many businesses and forced the evacuation of 45,000 people.
After that fire, former premier Gordon Campbell appointed the former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon as chairman of a team of fire experts to learn from the devastating experience and to make recommendations. The provincial government rightly understood that the Kelowna fire could be a harbinger of things to come, and that it was in everyone’s interest to reduce such events. Both the interests of local communities that faced potentially devastating losses of life and property and the wider community that ultimately paid the costs of fighting the fires themselves (recent annual provincial firefighting bills in the hundreds of millions of dollars). The team responded with a report dated 2004 and titled Firestorm 2003.
But seven years after the Filmon strategy was published -a strategy focused on making concerted efforts to reduce fuel loads in so-called “perimeter forests” -many mayors, first nation leaders and fire chiefs in hundreds of B.C. communities from North Vancouver to Anaheim Lake to Cranbrook, believe their communities are overdue for a firestorm, thanks to foot-dragging on the provincial government’s part in implementing the recommendations of the panel it appointed.
In the intervening years since the Filmon report, only two per cent of the forestland surrounding communities has been treated to reduce dangerous fuel loads, meaning that when -not if -future wildfires rage only the intervention of heavy rains may be capable of putting them out.
What led to this dangerous state of affairs? In the wake of the 2003 wildfires the forest ministry and Union of B.C. Municipalities, repeatedly told local governments that if they wanted to protect their communities they must not only plan for the cleanup of hazardous fuels – mostly on Crown land for which the province is responsible – but they must also contribute scant municipal tax dollars. With cleanup costs ranging from $1,000 to $20,000 per hectare, the recent injection of $25 million by the province is too little, too late for this summer.
The provincial government claims its response is in keeping with the Filmon recommendations. The claim is incorrect. While the Filmon committee felt it was important for local governments to help plan for the removal of hazardous fuels, it never intended that local governments bear the brunt of the legal and financial liability associated with hazardous fuel removal on Crown land.
The disagreement over who bears responsibility has led some communities to opt out of the provincial/UBCM Program, a program that provides partial funding for planning and for hazardous fuel removal. As a result, hazardous fuel is being removed -at a snail’s pace.
Adding to present risks is an outmoded attitude in government and the forest industry that all Crown forests are essentially there to provide timber to logging companies. This can -and has -resulted in some perimeter forests being logged in a manner that results in unacceptable levels of logging waste and slash being left behind which actually increases fuel loads at the worst possible of times.
Such an attitude may provide shortterm gains for logging companies but almost certainly guarantees mid-and long-term pain for communities. Happily, there is a fairly simple and elegant policy solution. If the provincial government placed all Crown land surrounding communities under local government jurisdiction and enacted laws and policies that de-emphasized timber production and prioritized fuel hazard reduction, then local government could both protect local homes and businesses and cover most of the costs of doing so by using the wood fibre to kick-start local bio-energy industries including district and home heating systems, as well as the manufacture of exportable bio-energy products such as pellets, biochar and biodiesel. This, in turn, would make local communities less reliant on provincial subsidies.
Re-allocating a relatively small amount of the overall Crown forest base from logging companies to communities and allowing communities to retain whatever revenues were generated from the sale of timber and brush removed from perimeter forests are the key policy changes needed to secure a better future for numerous communities currently at risk from forest fires.
Maintaining the status quo, on the other hand, places at serious risk the lives, businesses and homes of many British Columbians.
Robert W. Gray, a fire ecologist, is a co-author of the 2004 Filmon report titled Firestorm 2003.