BY BILL PHILLIPS
There is no doubt this marks the second extraordinary forest fire season in a row.
But, could this much devastation move out of the realm of extraordinary?
“We’re concerned that this may be the new normal,” said Premier John Horgan during a stop in Prince George this morning. “…Thirteen months in office and we’ve had two states of emergency. That’s unprecedented … That speaks to the changing environment that we live in and the ravages of climate change that we need to prepare for year after year.”
Horgan, along with federal defence minister Harjit Sajjan, met with Cariboo-Prince George MP Todd Doherty, Grand Chief Ed John, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee, and Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall this morning before touring, along with Sajjan, the wildfires west of the city.
“This is the second year in a row,” Horgan said. “It has had a profound impact on people’s lives, on our economy, on wildlife and most importantly, on public safety. We’re not out of the woods yet.”
With no rain forecast in the near future and potential for wind and lightning, the fire season could be heating up rather than cooling down. Horgan said he realizes people are frustrated with the response to fires in the North.
“The message all of want to give is we need to make sure our communications lines are still open,” he said. “I’m profoundly proud of the work that is being done, but I also understand how tragic it has been for many, many people and the frustration that we have heard and we will continue to hear.”
Horgan said the government also realizes part of the problem in the forest lies in the fact there are vast amounts dead and dying trees that increase the fire hazard remain in the forests. Following last year, the worst fire season in the province’s record, a report was prepared by George Abbott and Maureen Chapman into how such devastating fire seasons could be avoided. Horgan said the province has implemented about half of the recommendations but had to put that work on hold when this year’s fire season kicked into high gear.
“We need to be ready to go, when the rains come, to prepare for next year,” he said. “Areas where we had hoped to make better progress, (such as) better communications between regional districts, Indigenous communities, and the provincial government, have not yet taken hold, and that’s a result of people falling back to the practices they understand and know rather than implementing some of the new techniques in the report.”
Sajjan said the federal government is also committed to help. So far it has about 300 soldiers in B.C. working on the fires. About 250 of those are in the Okanagan providing relief work for firefighters doing mop up work and about 50 are in northern B.C. assisting with airlifting heavy equipment in and out of fire zones.
“Regrettably we are coming together like this far too often,” Sajjan said. “We want to assure Canadians, and especially British Columbians, that, regardless of the level of government, we will be coming together in support of them.”
He said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has convened an ad hoc committee on wildfires.
“This will help us, as a federal government, provide and coordinate the resources from all departments to the provincial government,” he said.
Horgan also urged British Columbians to heed the evacuation alerts and orders when they are given.
“Those who choose to ignore evacuation orders put themselves at risk, they put firefighters at risk, they put their communities at risk,” he said. “These decisions are not made lightly. They are not personal. The people charged with keeping the public safe and managing wildfires make these determinations in the public’s interest.”
He also said the bill for firefighting this year will exceed what was budgeted, but pointed out the budgeting for firefighting is a guessing game.
“Clearly the traditional means of budgeting for fire seasons is laughable,” he said. “It’s not something that just developed in the last 13 months, it’s been going on for years. (Governments) choose an arbitrary number, put it in the books, and hope for the best. We are going to overshoot the budget again this year. We need to put the resources that we have to to address the situation. Whatever is needed, will be there.”
Also for the second year in a row, Prince George has found itself on the receiving end of evacuees. Mayor Lyn Hall said currently the city is not threatened but officials have prepared for the unthinkable.
“It’s always in the back of our mind,” he said. “When we plan for receiving evacuees we also plan for the unfortunate circumstance that we may have to evacuate, but at this point we’re in pretty good shape.”