Les Leyne: Little progress in fire-danger reduction

Les Leyne mugshot genericWith nine evacuation orders or alerts issued recently due to wildfire threats, it’s worth recalling the independent Forest Practices Board’s recent report on reducing the danger in the interface zone between residences and the wilderness.

The board released a special investigation in May that found despite years of work on the hazard since the Kelowna fires of 2003, “most communities in B.C. remain vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire.”

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And if there was ever a year with potential for more catastrophic wildfires, 2015 looks to be the year. The Kelowna fires — which raged into subdivisions, burned 239 homes and forced life-or-death evacuations of tens of thousands of people — started a long dialogue about the fuel buildup in the interface zone.

The board said much work has been done, with new programs and new resources. But over the past 10 years, only 10 per cent or less of the hazardous forest fuels have been treated.

It noted that fire experts have warned “in the event of a mega fire, residents cannot rely on suppression resources to protect communities.”

That was reinforced Tuesday, when the wildfire branch acknowledged its resources are stretched to critical limits and it has begun prioritizing new fire calls, meaning ones that pose no immediate threat to people or property might not be tackled immediately. They passed the $90-million mark Tuesday — two weeks into summer — in costs and are predicting 30 new fires a day for the foreseeable future.

The board said the momentum to reduce the interface hazard that developed after Kelowna has slowly dissipated. It asked: “Will 2015 be the fire season that brings the issue back into the public eye?”

Forests Minister Steve Thomson said Tuesday the government has been very active and has spent more than $60 million reducing the fuel buildup. It’s a challenge that takes partnership and co-operation with local governments and property owners, he said.

But the board report was clear that overall progress has been minimal. Part of the difference between the minister’s perspective and the board’s involves the measurements being used. While $60 million sounds like a sizable budget, the board was critical of how it is being spent.

It said the cost of treatment — $10,000 per hectare — is excessive and unaffordable. The treatment is labour-intensive spacing, thinning and brush removal, complicated by the fact it all grows back and has to be redone. One district calculated it would take 45 years to address the problem at current funding levels. Mechanical logging would cut costs, but there is perceived resistance to logging operations near subdivisions.

More effective and cheaper actions, such as using prescribed burns, are still severely restricted.

It was also critical of local communities and individual property owners, saying the FireSmart principles that would ease the danger (move firewood away from the house, remove flammable growth near homes) “have typically been ignored by residents in at-risk communities.”

Homeowners should be “convinced or compelled” to adopt FireSmart measures, it said.

The combination of effective fire suppression, climate change, insect plagues and unco-ordinated new development based on the appeal of wilderness settings has created ideal conditions for catastrophic wildfires, it said.

It delivered essentially the same message in 2010 about much more needing to be done. That contributed to an additional $30 million being allocated and various refinements to the overall program.

But five years on, the overall progress is minimal. There are still 16,650 square kilometres of forest at moderate to high risk of sending embers into B.C. communities during a wildfire, and embers are the greatest risk to buildings.

Just So You Know: The report refers to historical attitudes, noting fire is a natural part of the ecosystem. The government estimates about 500,000 hectares of forest burned freely before European settlement. The sentiment then developed that “fire is bad” and must be prevented. Fires have burned just 50,000 hectares a year on average in the modern era, although that average has jumped in the past several years.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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