Years before the back-to-back record B.C. forest fire seasons of 2017 and 2018, the provincial government was on record as identifying a half century of forest fire suppression and the resulting forest fuel accumulation as a key to more volatile wildfires.
The 2003 Okanagan Mountain fire near Kelowna prompted the first modern-day reappraisal of forest fire prevention, when the B.C. Wildfire Service budget soared to $500 million and an estimated $80 million in tourism and other economic costs in the Central Okanagan alone. The urgency was reinforced by another severe fire season in 2009, where the bill reached $400 million.
“Many of the 2003 and 2009 fires occurred in areas where fuels had accumulated over decades, and during dry, hot weather conditions, these fires became very large and intense,” says the province’s Wildland Fire Management Strategy, released in 2010 and still in effect today. “Fires like this remove so much forest cover that soil productivity can be reduced and soil erosion can lead to flooding, landslides, decreased water quality and a variety of other negative consequences.”
Local politics is one impediment to changing an aggressive timber protection that started in the late 1940s as post-war heavy equipment and aircraft became available. Prescribed burns in spring produce heavy smoke, and for decades logging restrictions focused on preserving “view corridors” along highways and around communities, accumulating fuel in the highest-risk locations.
In the latest revamp of forest policy, Premier John Horgan and Forests Minister Katrine Conroy have committed to more use of prescribed burning to reduce fuel load, citing Indigenous forest burn practices that cleaned out underbrush to make forests passable for migration and hunting.
Fuel cleanup around communities has proceeded slowly since the recommendations made after the 2003 fires. This past June, bracing for another hot summer of wildfires, the B.C. government added $20 million more to its community resiliency fund. The program has assisted 116 B.C. communities with wildfire risk reduction work since 2018, when it was set up in response to back-to-back record wildfire years in B.C.
The Union of B.C. Municipalities administers the community grant fund, along with the First Nations’ Emergency Services Society of B.C. The next application intake begins June 30, for projects including residential fuel reduction, critical infrastructure protection, FireSmart training, emergency management, community planning and inter-agency cooperation.
Communities that can demonstrate high wildfire risk can apply for up to $150,000 to cover up to 100 per cent of project costs, while lower-risk communities can apply for up to $50,000.