Challenges of reducing the risk of wildfire

Guest Editorial by Tim Ryan, Forest Practice Board - Challenges of reducing the risk of wildfire

The week of Sept. 20-26 marks National Forest Week in Canada.  Originally established around 1920, and renamed National Forest Week  in 1967, this occasion has evolved to encompass educating Canadians about the many and varied human and environmental aspects of Canada’s forest resources-past, present and future. National Forest Week remains, first and foremost, a challenge to individual Canadians to learn more about their forest heritage and support greater recognition of this valuable resource.

With this year’s theme-”wildland fire”-being so relevant to the events occurring in British Columbia this summer, the Forest Practices Board challenges British Columbians to learn more about how they can help prevent catastrophic wildland fires in their communities and to take action.

Our recent report on “Fuel Management in the Wildland Urban Interface” highlights issues such as the limited government resources to respond to wildfires where communities are at risk, and inadequate efforts by communities to treat forest fuels to protect homes and property from wildfire risk. In our report, the board makes a number of recommendations and suggests ideas for how to improve the situation and reduce the risk to property and lives. For example, one of the most effective actions individuals can take is to FireSmart their property.

As of Sept. 17, B.C. has experienced 1,810 wildfires which burned over 298 000 hectares. Within weeks of the fire season start, the provincial government’s $63 million allocated for fighting the fires was depleted, and the total spent now stands at $272 million – money spent reacting to fires to protect communities and infrastructure. By comparison, our report found that just $60 million was invested in the strategic wildland fire prevention initiative over the past ten years, with an additional $500,000 announced this past week.

Our findings highlight B.C.’s need to get ahead of the game through wildfire prevention and readiness so we can save on the costs of fighting fires and, more importantly, reduce the risks to people’s homes and properties – and lives. Most communities in B.C. have a Community Wildfire Protection Plan now, and those that don’t should. But a plan doesn’t help if it’s not implemented and hazard fuels are not treated.

Community Wildfire Protection Plans require sustainable funding for fuel reduction treatments and re-treatments. All parties need to find ways to treat more area effectively at a lower cost. This includes accepting prescribed burning as an efficient and effective treatment in the right circumstances and engaging the forest industry in carrying out fuel reduction treatments. Education is also a critical component to getting property owners to take steps to protect themselves. As a result of the board’s report and suggestions, BC Assessment is now looking at informing property owners about FireSmart programs in their mailout of annual property assessments. Perhaps the FireSmart status of a property will even be recognized in property assessments or insurance rates in the future. Is there a role for BC Hydro or other government agencies to get involved and help?

The role of local government should also be re-examined to capitalize on their strengths. Local governments do not generally have technical expertise in fuel reduction on staff, nor should every municipality. But local governments are very good at co-ordination, facilitation  and community consultation. Perhaps the province could provide the  technical expertise while local governments provide co-ordination and  communication?

First Nations, communities and individuals need to do their part too, in taking action to reduce forest fuel around their homes and properties. Simple acts such as storing firewood away from one’s home and pruning trees and shrubs can make dramatic differences when a wildfire threatens one’s property. The type of landscaping and roofing material used on one’s home can also play a role in mitigating against the hazards of wildfire.

It’s time for B.C. to start being proactive – not reactive – when it  comes to wildland fire. What’s needed is leadership to galvanize  action and all parties need to get involved – the Province, municipal  governments, First Nations, the forest industry and individual  citizens. No one party can make a difference on their own. Our report  provides some ideas and suggestions to get the prevention  conversation started. Now who will step up and carry the ball? We challenge every one of you.