Editorial: Reduce damage from wildfires

B.C.’s worst recorded wildfire season is still burning, but we should waste no time in learning from this summer of devastation. We have been here before, staring across a landscape of ash and promising to do better next time. Will those promises be kept, or will the province fall as short as it did in years past?

With the fires burning into September, the flames have already scorched 10,600 square kilometres of land and pushed 45,000 people from their homes. The cost is mounting by the hour, and has passed $400 million.

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The outlook is for more hot, dry summers ahead, with the attendant risk of serious fires. Mitigating fire risk looks like a much better investment than blowing through hundreds of millions of dollars every summer to protect homes, businesses and lives.

How do we do that? Look back to 2003.

That summer, more than 300 homes and businesses were destroyed. In the aftermath, the government commissioned former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon to investigate what happened and recommend ways to reduce the damage in the future.

In one of his main recommendations, Filmon said we would face more severe fires unless fuels such as seedlings, shrubs and wood debris were cleared out of forests near communities. Interface fires, where forests with lots of fuel butt up against residential areas, present an obvious danger.

The government did take steps, creating the strategic wildfire prevention initiative, which gives communities money to clear out a lot of that fuel where it comes close to their boundaries. However, it has shelled out only $78 million to treat just seven per cent of the land that has been identified as high-risk, a small proportion of what was spent fighting fires.

Last year, the former B.C. Liberal government created a forest enhancement society and gave it $235 million for activities including wildfire risk reduction. That brought the total spent on mitigation to $313 million.

Former forests minister John Rustad said B.C. also expanded the community forest program, giving towns permission to harvest timber near their borders and thus reduce the amount of fuel.

This summer, fuel control showed its worth.

In Logan Lake, a fire that started from a campfire didn’t turn into a wildfire because the town had put a lot of work into clearing fuel from the nearby areas. Tall grass, shrubs and branches were cut away to prevent fires from climbing swiftly into the tops of the trees.

When the fire hit, crews held it to half a hectare.

Would it work everywhere? Probably not. The mountain pine beetle has produced more fuel, even in areas that were cleared years ago. Some bigger fires would have overwhelmed the buffer zones.

Clearing the fuel would not be cheap. The average cost of treating a hectare of land was $10,000 in 2015, according to the Forest Practices Board, although some experts put the figure at $5,000.

And once protective zones have been cleared, they have to be maintained, as plants will inevitably grow back.

However, as Lori Daniels, an associate professor of forest and conservation sciences at the University of British Columbia, says, the province has spent billions preparing for a major earthquake that will happen at some point, but relatively little preparing for fires that happen every summer.

Some fire experts suggest we should concentrate our efforts on protecting communities, and let other fires burn, as they are a natural part of forest regeneration. It is worth serious consideration.

As an exhausting and expensive fire season burns itself out, we should take Filmon’s report off the shelf and put more time and money into following his advice.

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