New solutions needed for wildfire woes
In the aftermath of the disastrous wildfires in 2003 that burned hundreds of homes and caused millions of dollars in property damage in and around the communities of Kelowna and Barriere, the City of Cranbrook began doing what hundreds of other communities across B.C. must do if they wish to better protect themselves from future wildfires.
Using a combination of city funds, volunteer labour, and provincial and federal grants, Cranbrook treated more than 250 hectares of surrounding forests - thinning trees and clearing brush - in an effort to reduce fuel loads and to dampen the severity of any future forest fires were they to burn on the community's perimeter.
The work was a tiny but significant first step in the right direction.
Similar work has been carried out by other B.C. communities, including the City of Kimberley, whose proactive efforts at hazard mitigation resulted last year in awards from both the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM).
Unfortunately, all of the progress made by Cranbrook and many other B.C. communities is about to be undone by changes to the way fuel treatment funds are disbursed by the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
Prior to the fall of 2010, there were numerous funding sources for this work including: UBCM, the Community Adjustment Fund, Natural Resources Canada's Mountain Pine Beetle Initiative, and the Community Development Trust Job Opportunities Program. These funding sources allowed Kimberley to tap into more than $1 million in grants between 2006 and 2010.
Today, none of those funding sources remains with the exception of the UBCM program.
With fuel treatment costs running into the thousands of dollars per hectare, B.C. communities can ill afford to use municipal funds to subsidize the treatment of hazardous fuels on adjacent Crown lands. No amount of volunteer time will provide enough in-kind contributions to make a difference.
In an ironic twist, a review of the Community Charter and Local Government Act reveals that it is actually illegal for B.C. municipalities to use municipal dollars to invest in Crown or private land treatments outside their boundaries. Yet the UBCM and the Wildfire Management Branch of the forests ministry both are directing municipalities to do so in an effort to reduce fuel hazards on adjacent Crown lands.
Cranbrook's past success in accessing grants, for example, would make the city eligible for almost $4 million in matching funds under the previous funding formula. More broadly, similar successes recorded by other communities in the Kootenay region would make them eligible for over $15 million. It's clear to see that this would quickly erode the paltry $25 million of provincial government funding in the current UBCM program budget.
Being acutely aware that the risks of forests surrounding B.C. communities burning in uncontrolled wildfires are on the rise due to climate change and past forest management activities, the communities of Kimberley and Cranbrook, in conjunction with the St. Mary's Indian Band, Ktunaxa Nation Council, Nupqu Development Corporation, and Rocky Mountain Trench Natural Resources Society, have come together to promote a different solution that ends reliance on insufficient and inconsistent government subsidies.
They want to link the thinning of trees and the clearing of brush, which reduces wildfire risks, with community-based bioenergy industries, such as district thermal heating plants and the manufacture of wood pellets and similar products for export. To do this, they want the provincial government to redraw the Crown land map in B.C. just a little so that perimeter or "interface" forests are placed under community control.
It's time for substantive changes to how B.C. deals with the increasing threat that wildfires pose to the health and safety of vulnerable communities. Insufficient and inconsistent provincial funding cannot and will not get communities to where they need to be - safe.
Robert W. Gray is a fire ecologist and co-author of Firestorm 2003, a report commissioned by the provincial government and co-written by Gary Filmon, former premier of Manitoba.