Controlling fuel, improving evacuation procedures among recommendations
With the impact of wildfires on the province in the summer of 2003 still fresh on everyones minds, last Friday the B.C. government released the results of a comprehensive review of the causes of and responses to the crisis.
The 2003 Firestorm Provincial Review, which was chaired by former Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon, also goes one step further by offering recommendations as to how the province, local governments and organizations can work to prevent forest fires in the future.
More than 2,500 wildfires were recorded last summer, mainly in the drought- and pine beetle-stricken Interior of the province. The fires destroyed 334 homes, several businesses, and forced the evacuation of more than 45,000 people. The cost to the province is estimated to be in the $700 million range.
Although most residents were kept safe, three pilots died battling the blazes.
The review, which was commissioned in October of 2003, covers forest management practices, emergency preparedness and planning, firefighting, the operation of emergency centres, evacuations, resettlement and post-emergency recovery. Its a hefty document that weighs in at 100 pages, with data and opinions mined from more than 400 individuals and organizations involved with the issue.
The review also touches on the issue of interface fires, which mainly occur in subdivisions that were built in the woods for aesthetic reasons.
After looking at the causes and the emergency response, Filmons review made dozens of recommendations including:
Identifying areas where communities, infrastructure and watersheds are more likely to be impacted by large-scale fires, and establish fuel management priorities (strategic logging, controlled burns) for human life, property and resource values;
Require communities at risk to develop comprehensive protection plans and emergency plans;
Municipalities in fire prone areas should adopt FireSmart standards for both private and public property, including building codes that are safer from a fire perspective. The insurance industry should encourage and reward these initiatives. At the very least, says Filmon, the standards should be applied to all new subdivision developments;
The province should review and amend existing land use plans to incorporate fire management;
Reduce the buildup of fuel in parks through selective tree harvesting;
Use prescribed burning to manage fuel in parks and wild areas;
"Deal" with slash in areas that are adjacent to urban areas, burning or removing materials to mitigate the surface fuel hazard;
Amend the Annual Allowable Cut in fire-prone timber supply areas;
Look at alternatives to stumpage rates to encourage selective tree harvesting while researching uses for small diameter trees;
Provincial and municipal governments should adopt standard emergency procedures using the B.C. Emergency Response Management System and the Incident Command System;
Develop a crisis communications strategy with all stakeholders including the media to keep the public informed;
Educate students and adults about interface wild fires, including the risks and responsibilities of residents;
Allow more local decision making on evacuations, while increasing the understanding of the evacuation process and access to post-evacuation assistance services;
A provincial inventory of firefighting equipment should be established and firefighting crews should be restored to past staffing levels;
Provide emergency crews and workers with better maps to shorten planning and response times.
Before the review was released, Premier Gordon Campbell said the province will consider implementing some of the more than 40 recommendations tabled by Filmon, but could not afford to pay for all of them. The government was given the review two weeks before it was released to the public, but has yet to comment on its contents.
For its part, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee is concerned with parts of the review and will be watching the government closely.
"The main thing were freaked out about is the discussion about logging in the parks, and the fact that they appear to be advocating actually selling the timber to pay for it," said Joy Foy, WCWC campaign manager. "The combination of logging and selling the timber is, we think, a recipe for disaster.
"It doesnt escape us that Mr. Filmon is the former premier of a province that actually industrial logs in its provincial parks, and thats the part of the story that hasnt been told."
The WCWC supports controlled burns both in and outside of the parks, but if trees need to be removed because of the fire hazard they believe they should be burned rather than cut or sold.
"The reason is that were managing more than trees here, were managing trees and people," said Foy. "The fire problem weve got is because of years of fire suppression letting the fuel pile up, but the people problem is that once people think you can make money logging in the parks theres going to be all sorts of backroom shenanigans and deals. Before you know it were going to have roads and cuts throughout our park system if we allow them to take trees for money.
"Right now were getting calls about logging on the east side of Manning Park theyre using beetle kills as an excuse."
For the complete review on the summers wildfires, visit www.2003firestorm.gov.bc.ca.