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GEORGE: Now is the time to act on the B.C. wildfire threat

Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Chris George
March 27, 2018 - 12:07 PM

 


OPINION


British Columbia has now tallied up the financial costs of last year's brutal fire season.

$564 million is a lot of money. Compare it to the $78 million the government has spent on the recommendations of the 2003 Filmon Report over the past decade and a half and we come out looking penny wise and pound foolish. Now is time to act on all of the recommendations of that report and this government doesn't look any more excited about that than the last one did.

The delays in kicking off the review of last years floods and fires have all but guaranteed that any recommendations that come from it won't be made in time to impact what happens on the ground this year. And this year is already off to a blazing start with a 75-hectare human-caused fire just outside of Lytton last week.

The two big issues that the previous government was unwilling to tackle remain. The money that the province has spent went to assist districts and municipalities in their planning processes around tackling the urban/forest interface zones. Years of effective fire suppression near built infrastructure and natural growth have left tracts of forest near people loaded with fuel, both dead and alive. It will cost money to actually put boots on the ground to deal with the problem. And just when a municipality thinks it has finally cleaned up its perimeter, it will be time to start again.

I would argue that the provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations holds fiduciary responsibility for the forests of British Columbia and that while I laud their efforts to involve local governments and First Nations in management, not providing the appropriate funding to put boots on the ground is an abdication of that responsibility.

It is going to be expensive to do a proper job of this. But it isn't going to be $564 million expensive. And both British Columbians and their property will be safer for it.

In addition to improving fuel management at the interface, the Filmon report recommends tenure reform. Specifically, the recommendations were "...to consider amending low-value g the annual allowable cut in fire-prone ecosystems to encourage hazard reduction treatments by tenure holders in marginal and uneconomic tree stand areas within the wildland-urban interface", look at alternatives to stumpage where practical "...to encourage the harvest of high-risk, low-value fuel types", and more research and development "...into the use of small diameter trees in non-traditional forest products markets such as energy and bio-fuel.

More money required. More importantly, political will is required to confront existing stakeholders with the some of the costs of managing the public forests. Taxpayers need to be protected from the incentives and disincentives of the current tenure system when it comes to footing the bill for fuel management on public lands. I like how Filmon seeks to use tenure to meet the goals of protecting people and property. The current system is unsustainable and needs adjusting.

In 2015, the Forest Practices Board pointed out that the number one opportunity for improvement in the government's approach to fuel management was to provide "sustainable and adequate funding". Their recommendations were based on an evaluation of the 1998 and 2003 fire seasons and what the government has done and not done in the intervening decades. Needless to say, that recommendation has yet to be implemented. The Board was less than impressed with the former government's lack of action on the FIlmon recommendations.

The current premier promised in August 2017 that the Filmon report would “...be the foundation for what we do after we get people back to their homes after the fires are out and we start to take stock of what the consequences have been from this season’s fires.” Let us hope that this will not simply be another promise that gets studied to death and eventually ignored by this and future governments. The shelves are lined with reports and studies and even Royal Commissions that have been studiously ignored by government after government. The Cohen Commission comes to mind.

Information is great. It is hard to make good decisions without it.

As this government has proved already with Site C though, having good information doesn't guarantee good decisions. Sometimes you have to simply get the politics out of the process and decide to act. This is one of those times.

We'll see if this government can act on at least some of these recommendations before we are in the throes of another fire season like last years.

— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.


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