BY BILL PHILLIPS
Forests Minister Doug Donaldson met with members of the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association in Kamloops this morning to discuss issue of ranchers being affected by the province’s wildfires.
“I was really happy to meet face-to-face with them,” Donaldson said from the Williams Lake Fire Centre Thursday, after touring, by air, the Elephant Hill fire area and then coming north.
Victoria and Ottawa are working to ensure B.C. ranchers have access to either existing or new programs as part of the overall response to the devastating wildfires in the province’s Interior.
The potential impact is severe as B.C. ranchers have an estimated 30,000 animals within the boundaries of the wildfire-affected areas. The number of confirmed livestock injuries and losses is not available yet as the ongoing emergency response continues. Once the information is available, the B.C. government will work quickly with industry stakeholders to develop a fair and timely response.
The Liberal opposition says the province needs to immediately tell ranchers they will receive compensation for any damage due to back burns.
“This is not about assigning blame, it is about accepting responsibility,” said John Rustad, the BC Liberal critic for Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. “This is an extraordinary time in British Columbia and the forests minister, Doug Donaldson, shouldn’t be hiding behind how things used to be done. They can take the weight off the shoulders of these families by saying financial assistance will be coming.”
Back burns are an accepted tool in the B.C. Forest Service tool box but this year there have been unexpected problems, particularly around the Clinton area where the back burns have not gone as planned and caused extensive damage. Residents are concerned about the lingering effect.
“The families who have been directly impacted by these back burns will be dealing with these issues for months if not years,” says Fraser-Nicola MLA Jackie Tegart. “This is their land and their livelihood and they’re rightly worried. What they don’t need is to also worry about the financial impact. Premier Horgan said he’d be there for people, it’s time for him to actually do it.”
Donaldson agreed that back burns are a part of fighting fires as large as the Elephant Hill fire and confirmed there is a provision in the Wildfire Act for compensation when a back burn escapes and damage occurs on private land.
“That requires a thorough investigation, as part of the process,” said Donaldson. “That investigation is underway.”
However, Donaldson it’s too early to start talking about compensation.
“The focus right now is public safety,” said Donaldson. “Once we can get that situation more alleviated then we will work with ranching community to look at the programs that are available. It’s not like we’re sitting back.”
He said much of the focus of his meeting with the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association Thursday morning was on communication. Ranchers who were impacted by the back burn that got out of control issued a statement earlier this week saying there was no communication to ranchers from the Wildfire Service prior to the back burn. Donaldson said they talked about improving communications such as implementing stakeholder conference calls.
“It’s an unprecedented time,” said Donaldson. “We have a dedicated staff trying to put these fires out and protect public safety and at the same time we’re trying to innovate on the go.”
He said some resources for rebuilding is already in place. The province has already committed $6 million to replace fencing. He added provincial staff working with ranchers to find alternative grazing locations and planning is underway to enhance forage and start replanting once the fires are done.
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