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COLUMN: Our firestorms

For the past month, we have seen a series of wildfires race through the British Columbia interior, destroying homes, disrupting lives and damaging businesses.  The BC government has already spent over $150 million fighting the fires and has provided over $100 million in relief to those who have been forced from their homes.

Most of the fires started early on July 7th, when a series of thunderstorms brought dry lightning in a broad swath from Ashcroft north through the Cariboo and Chilcotin.  One by one, communities were evacuated throughout the region.  At one time, almost 40,000 people were registered at emergency response centres in Kamloops, Prince George, and other towns in the Interior. In the South Okanagan and West Kootenay, we have largely been spared from the worst of these fires, although there has been serious damage to a few homes.  We all thank the fire fighters who are working hard in extreme conditions to keep our towns safe.

The tragedies of the firestorms have also brought heart-warming stories of people offering up their homes to strangers, rescuing livestock and pets from the flames, and volunteering long hours to make evacuees as comfortable as possible.  Even the provincial government transition was marked by cooperation between the Liberals and NDP to ensure that emergency responses were not compromised in any way.

But those good news stories are offset by reports of new fires and new evacuations. As I write this, the valley is once again filled with smoke, and August has barely begun.  The forecast for the next week calls for continuing hot, dry weather.

In the short term, we obviously can’t do anything about the weather.  But we could be doing more to make our communities safe from firestorms.  After the fiery summer of 2003, when hundreds of homes were destroyed in Kelowna and the North Thompson, BC commissioned former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon to report on how we could ensure this wouldn’t happen again.

The Filmon Report created the Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative, administered by the Union of BC Municipalities and the First Nations Emergency Services Society.  It has accomplished some very good things—for instance, many communities have developed Community Wildfire Protection Plans.  But it has done relatively little to actually reduce fire hazards around towns.  As of last year--12 years after the report--only 80,000 hectares of interface forests had been treated to reduce fuels, despite the fact that the report identified 685,000 ha forest lands as high-risk to communities.

The recent fires have engendered a spirit of cooperation between all levels of government.  I hope this spirit continues into the months ahead as we look for ways to reduce fire risk.  The forest industry is facing difficult times, with new softwood lumber tariffs and reduced allowable cuts after a devastating pine beetle epidemic.  A concerted effort to thin forests around municipalities could provide opportunities for out-of-work loggers and contractors, benefitting communities right away while protecting their future.  We should search for ways for all governments to move this program forward.