Extreme wildfire events expected to increase 

Investing in prevention is key, fire chief says

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - PREVENTATIVE MEASURES A report from the Ministry of Forests says that wildfire severity is expected to increase in the coming years.
  • shutterstock.com
  • PREVENTATIVE MEASURES A report from the Ministry of Forests says that wildfire severity is expected to increase in the coming years.

British Columbia needs to be proactive in its response to the ever-rising threat of "mega fires," according to a Ministry of Forests draft document.

It's a point all the more relevant in Whistler, a significant cog in B.C.'s tourism wheel, generating an estimated 22.5 per cent of the entire annual tourism export revenue of B.C., and contributing more than $1 million in tax revenue per day to government. A wildfire in Whistler could have devastating rippling impacts across the province.

The report, dated April of this year and recently posted to the government's open information site, suggests that suppression alone cannot be relied upon moving forward.

"It is not an option to continue to increase fire suppression response resources and associated costs, because even the most aggressive action would neither be safe or effective for the extreme wildfire events," the report said.

The 2003 wildfire season is estimated to have cost the province $1.3 billion in suppression costs and indirect economic losses.

The findings of the report come as no surprise, said Whistler Fire Rescue Service (WFRS) chief Sheila Kirkwood.

"The cornerstone of any fire department should be prevention, whether that's fire inspection or public education with kids," Kirkwood said. "FireSmart is really a cornerstone of wildfire reduction prevention."

The WFRS has invested a lot of time and energy into fire prevention, including doing door-to-door FireSmart assessments in select neighbourhoods.

"(This year) we did over 2,500 homes," Kirkwood said. "Really no surprise to us coming out of that data is 50 per cent of the homes surveyed are at high risk, 26 per cent of them are at extreme, and so that to me just really underlines why that neighbourhood program is important."

In Whistler, wildfire prevention begins with individual homeowners, Kirkwood said, but there are other precautions being taken as well.

"We have started this year the landscape-level fuel treatments," she said.

"So that's looking at the larger landscape — so the forest lands outside of our municipal boundaries — and creating larger fire breaks."

Some of the work done this year took place in Whistler's Community Forest in the Callaghan area.

The WFRS has also done fuel-thinning projects in individual neighbourhoods.

"Since 2004 we've done thinning projects in the Kadenwood subdivision, and we just recently completed one in Horstman," Kirkwood said.

Moving forward, the WFRS will be looking at other strategic areas within the municipality to turn into priority areas.

After the devastating 2003 wildfire season, the Union of British Columbia Municipalities created the Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative to help administer funding to communities in mitigating wildfire risk.

Part of that funding helped the WFRS put together its Community Wildfire Protection Plan in 2005.

"Out of that (plan) there were 23 recommendations, and the recommendations were about public education, they were about fuel thinning and they were about fire suppression, training and education," Kirkwood said.

Since 2007, the WFRS has received $726,076 in grant funding from the province and spent a total of $907,973 over the same period, Kirkwood said.

"That, again, sort of speaks to the philosophy of prevention," Kirkwood said. "You're far better spending money on prevention than being reactionary and spending it on suppression efforts, (because) it's too late. We want to prevent it before it happens. The costs to the province for wildfire suppression is increasing year over year."

According to the Ministry of Forests' report, extreme cases of wildfire are expected to increase in the coming years.

"Significant impacts are predicted for the southern interior including: increased fire size doubling from an average of 7,961 ha (hectares) to 19,076 ha; increased fire severity by 40 per cent in spring, 95 per cent in summer and 30 per cent in fall; increased fire season length and fire frequency by 30 per cent," the report said.

For Kirkwood, the report just confirms that the WFRS is on the right track, and the need for continued support from the government.

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