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Blaze of opposition prompts Tofino’s council to delay beach fire ban decision

“The period of the year where this challenge is most acute is behind us now.”
Beach fire remains, like charred driftwood, have long been a point of contention in Tofino, but the town’s municipal council isn’t ready to ban beach fires just yet after receiving an unprecedented response from community members opposed to a prohibition. (Westerly file photo)

Tofino’s municipal council will let it’s beach fire ban idea simmer for a few more weeks after receiving a blaze of opposition from their constituents.

Council seemed set to launch a year-round beach fire ban during their Oct. 13 regular meeting, having voted 4-2 in favour of the ban during Sept. 28’s Committee of the Whole meeting, but instead pressed pause on the plan and asked their staff to report back with potential options and enforcement capabilities.

Councillors Duncan McMaster had brought the motion to ban beach fires for a year to the COW meeting, where it received support from Andrea McQuade, Al Anderson and Britt Chalmers, with Tom Stere and Dan Law voting in opposition.

The Oct. 13 decision to request more information was motivated by feedback to a district-led survey that garnered 516 responses as well as a petition opposing a beach fire ban launched by resident Ryan Orr that received over 2,000 signatures.

Coun. McQuade said she was happy to see so much feedback, though she noted 404 of the petition’s signatures were Tofino residents.

“I’d like us as a council to be cautious and mindful of the fact that it’s those 400-plus people that are going to bear the impact of the community and subsequent council decisions and that impact isn’t going to be measured solely on social media by those living outside the community,” she said.

“I want to stress that when council solicits public opinion, we do so in a manner that attempts to hear the voice of the community the loudest: residents, homeowners, second homeowners. While it is without a doubt to me that the voice of guests, visitors and potential visitors is extremely important, this discussion really centred itself around the value of beach fires to our community, our residents and that’s who we are beholden to as a council.”

She added that concerns about beach fires have long been smouldering in Tofino.

“Many of us watched online this summer as a local, kind of anti-tourism, account consistently pushed the idea of a fire ban and there have been repeated and consistent contact to staff and council for many years about these concerns,” she said.

“It is extremely difficult to parse the intent of our community when the same people actively commenting on anti-beach-fire posts are the same ones signing a petition not to ban them.”

In light of the unprecedented feedback received, Tofino’s chief administrative officer Bob MacPherson told council there was no urgency to make a decision that day.

“The period of the year where this challenge is most acute is behind us now,” he said. “Certainly if you would like your staff to do some more research on some aspects of this, we would be more than pleased to do that.”

Coun. Stere said he remained opposed to a ban, but was willing to listen to all aspects of the issue, and said he hoped the beach fire discussion would present a “gateway” to a broader conversation around bylaw enforcement in general.

“There is a much larger issue here that this brings forward,” he said. “One is the discussion around the impacts of our dominant industry on the community and, in a sense, the resources that are available for that.”

Coun. Chalmers agreed.

“It’s not just the fires, it is the beach experience and it’s the town’s capacity and what we expect from our community and our guests. This one motion has drawn up a lot more issues,” she said.

She noted though that any additional bylaw resources would need to be paid for, either through property taxation, a permit system or other funding options.

“If this is a problem that we identify, then we can come up with a solution if we’re willing to put resources towards it,” she said.

READ MORE: Tofino residents pumped up by perceived lack of bylaw enforcement

Speaking to the received opposition to the ban, Chalmers suggested she had heard from some residents who supported the ban, but did not want to make their support public.

“I did speak to people that were in support of the fire ban that didn’t feel comfortable saying it out loud. They were worried what their friends would say and what their peers would say, so I do think we need to remember those voices that actually aren’t comfortable going against the loud majority,” she said.

Coun. Anderson suggested that even those opposed to a ban, still seemed in favour of better beach management and that “enforcement kept coming up as a theme.”

He added environmental impacts and health concerns must be taken seriously.

“All the emphasis that Tofino council and indeed the community of Tofino gives to environmental values and yet, we are somehow OK to let our beaches be degraded by fire debris and the garbage and the impacts that happen when there’s many, many fires and gatherings around the fires,” he said.

“I was really appreciative of those that were in favour of a ban, or some limits to fires, citing all the environmental values because, indeed, that’s what we keep on saying that we stand for.”

He suggested council look into a potential beach patrol program, rather than rely on its bylaw staff.

“That might be a better kind of approach than enforcement in the police sense of everything,” he said.

Coun. McMaster, who had brought the original motion to Sept. 28’s COW meeting, said he believed the negative impacts of beach fires have been allowed to continue for too long.

“I felt that we needed to knock this thing on the head while we came up with a solution. I tend to think of it like a leaking dam. You’ve got to stop the flow of water before you actually fix the dam, otherwise the dam would get destroyed. I still think we’re in that position,” he said.

He added that continuing to allow beach fires seemed counter intuitive to Tofino’s environmental image.

“The Environmental Protection Agency says a single beach fire emits as much pollution as a heavy duty truck driving 564 miles yet, in Tofino, we have a bylaw where you’re not allowed to idle your car for over three minutes. Something’s wrong there when you can’t idle your car for three minutes, but you can have a beach fire that emits far more pollution,” he said.

“We keep on saying, ‘Listen to the science, listen to the experts.’ I’m saying now is a good time to take a pause. Let’s get this ban in place for next summer while we’re trying to figure out a solution, otherwise we’ll just go on with another Band-Aid and another Band-Aid. I’m not opposed to coming up with a solution and I’m glad to hear we’re not in a rush to, but we can’t just keep on dithering like this; it’s getting worse and worse.”

READ MORE: Beach fire ban debate reignited in Tofino

He also suggested that council cannot always oblige community feedback.

“I’m sure if I said, ‘Let’s see what the community thinks about abolishing property taxes,’ I’d get a very positive response. That doesn’t mean to say that it’s the right thing. I think we’re put on this council sometimes to make the hard decisions that are the right decisions,” he said.

Coun. Law said he remained opposed to a beach fire prohibition and suggested beach fires are an important pastime for community members who have few other options for leisure.

“We have very few amenities…We’re not Parksville, we’re not Qualicum, we’re not Nanaimo. We do not have pools or gyms, we don’t have a sports team, we don’t have a high school, we don’t have a lot of stuff here,” he said. “This is something that the community and, in this case, I would say the loud majority has spoken very clearly in support of as one of the amenities that we hold core…It was an unprecedented survey, we had a huge amount of respondents and the vast majority of them were against a ban.”

Council agreed to direct their staff to report back at a future meeting with options to address health, environmental and safety issues related to beach fires for the coming 2021 tourist season.

“I must say, I’ve never heard so many people so excited to find ways of funding bylaw to a greater extent,” Law said. “I do find that encouraging, how many people were so behind bylaw and making sure that bylaw was front and centre and protected.”

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Andrew Bailey

About the Author: Andrew Bailey

I arrived at the Westerly News as a reporter and photographer in January 2012.
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