Wildfires: Old normal approach won’t cut it for new normal

Big week in the city last week. Premier John Horgan rolled through town, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau flew through town and, oh yeah, a little bauble called the Stanley Cup was here too.

While the Cup, which drew a way bigger crowd, was here as part of a celebration, Horgan and Trudeau were here to talk wildfires.

They both talked a good game about having to do better next year … understatements of the year. Horgan called this the “new normal” when it comes to fire seasons in British Columbia. Here’s hoping he’s wrong but I think most peoples’ gut tells them he isn’t. So what can we do? Last year the province did what most governments do. Following the worst fire season record, it waited until December to direct George Abbott and Maureen Chapman prepare a report on fire season.

They clustered for five months and on April 30, delivered a report that governments everywhere like … lots of colour photos, a two-page acronym guide, warm and fuzzies about collaboration and communication, and 108 recommendations.

Horgan said the province was about halfway through the recommendations when this year’s fire season hit with a vengeance. Since about half of the recommendations involve communicating better with Indigenous communities, meeting about half of them shouldn’t have been too hard … pick up the phone and call.

What’s evident in the ‘new normal’ however, is that the ‘old normal’ just isn’t good enough.

We don’t need another fire season review and we can’t wait until December to start looking at next year.

Everyone knows the BC Wildfire Service personnel will need a break when the fires wane, but government needs to immediately start taking steps towards combating next year’s infernos.

And while creating “a volunteer training requirement, as part of Emergency Social Services, to participate in cultural awareness,” which is one of the Abbott/Chapman recommendations, is nice, we need action on the ground.

Recommendation #32 from Abbott and Chapman is: “Canada and/or B.C. equip First Nations communities and rural and remote communities so they can respond to wildfires through training and development of equipment caches.” So it’s ironic that the BC Wildfire Service seems to be doing just the opposite on the south side of Francois Lake where residents, many of whom own heavy equipment, and are ready and willing to help fires in their communities, are being shunned. Maybe it’s time to create a registry of local expertise, outside of government, that can be pressed into action in time of an emergency.

Then, of course, there was the foofaraw over the B.C. Wildfire Service turning back a Fort St. John company that had trucked in millions of dollars of sprinkler equipment and was hoping to help on the Southside. The B.C. Wildfire Service issued a statement saying that the company decided their sprinklers wouldn’t work in that area. The company responded saying they said no such thing.

In the background there is fiddle music … don’t worry, that’s just Nero.

The sprinkler equipment has since been trucked out of the fire zone. One simple question: Given that there are fires in virtually every corner of the province, is there absolutely no other place in the province that the $20 million, state-of-the-art sprinkler system could have been used? Did we really have to give the company the bum’s rush because its system wouldn’t work in one spot on one fire? (OK, that was two questions and apparently not that simple.)

Then there are the biggies. Everyone knows we have huge amounts of beetle-killed timber out there that is just waiting for a spark. It’s a huge issue, but we need to deal with that. In addition, we have huge amounts of slash piles in the forest that we do nothing with other than burn. It’s time we dealt with that too.

We need to start managing our forests to be forests rather than raw material for sawmills.

In fairness to Abbott and Chapman, they raised these issues as well.

Recommendation #102 is that: “B.C. develop and apply post-fire replanting strategies for dry forests that enhance resilience rather than optimize timber production, for example, adjust preferred species and reduce stocking standards.”

That’s followed up with recommendation #103 which suggests that: “B.C. co-develop timber salvage harvest plans with all forest tenure holders, including the joint planning and allocation of available timber for harvest.”

Our forests have changed and, as a result, our forest fires have changed. Our approach to forest management and, in turn, our approach to firefighting, has to change too.