A beach fire ban is one of the options being considered after a tumultuous summer for Tofino’s bylaw enforcement department, though the district’s manager of protective services expects some opposition to that idea.
“Contrary to what you might read in social media right now, there is a lot of people that really take the position that we should be able to have beach fires. Anytime [a ban] gets brought up, there is always an opposition group. We need to look at all options and see what makes the most sense, what can be managed, what can be resourced and move forward from there,” Brent Baker, who also serves as Tofino’s fire chief, told the Westerly News.
He said the amount of beach fires “was consistent, or maybe even slightly less than previous years,” but they were more spread out, making them more difficult to manage.
Beach fires are permitted at MacKenzie Beach and Chesterman Beach from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and are prohibited at all other beaches in Tofino. There is currently no regulation around how many fires either beach can host during those permitted time slots.
READ MORE: Beach fire ban debate reignited in Tofino
Baker said MacKenzie traditionally accounts for roughly 90 per cent of summertime beach fires but, this year, residents and tourists chose Chesterman and Cox Bay, where fires aren’t permitted, at a higher clip.
“There were more people and more fires down on Cox Beach, which was a lot more challenging,” Baker said. “It takes an awful lot of time to engage with everybody that is involved in these activities and it’s not just about fires, it’s about the alcohol and the garbage that tends to come along with the fires. This year was more challenging as far as enforcement because we had far more terrain that we had to cover and more challenging resources.”
He added that signage laying out fire restrictions at Cox Bay has, in the past, been enough to dissuade both residents and visitors from setting up beach fires there and added that he has worked with local resorts to ensure proper education is being delivered to guests.
“I think we can all appreciate that when we arrive on vacation, we’re looking forward to the vacation part of it. We’re not necessarily focused on the welcome speech that we may get and we don’t always take in all the information that we get at arrival time. I do feel that the resorts are making an excellent effort at doing what they can,” he said.
He said his department tries to have at least two bylaw enforcement officers on patrol every evening and those officers have been supplemented by an RCMP reservist, but the reservist program was cancelled this year as part of the district’s budget cuts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“At times, it’s been one bylaw officer in the evening and one during the day, which can be very challenging,” he said.
He said bylaw officers patrol the beaches in the early-evening for an educational shift where they inform groups having fires about the local laws.
“Nobody that’s having a fire doesn’t get spoken to,” he said. “If somebody is having a fire and they are not prepared, if they don’t have the water resources to put it out, then the bylaw officers stay with them until they make those arrangements. That is very clear: no bucket, no fire. It takes several hours to get through all the beaches just educating people.”
He said a later patrol is done at 11 p.m. to ensure fires have been put out.
“It’s very time consuming and, unfortunately, when you’re dealing with that, you can’t necessarily be dealing with other issues at the same time,” he said.
He suggested that 11 p.m. is also when the bylaw department usually begins receiving calls about illegal campers parked on roadways, an issue that became so prevalent this summer that it sparked a petition demanding more bylaw enforcement.
“When the bylaw officers are out patrolling for beach fires, they need to be able to focus on that and, once they complete that, then they can start making the rounds for vehicle-camping. When people abandon their fires and don’t extinguish them, that ends up falling on the bylaw officers as well, so that can take longer, which pushes back being able to deal with those other issues,” he said. “It’s a juggling act, constantly. There are always multiple things that are trying to be accomplished at the same time. It takes time and patience.”
The district has considered beach fire bans in the past and has also mulled over a possible firepit program that would limit the amount of fires allowed at each beach. Baker said those options remain on the table as the district works to improve its enforcement next summer.
“Even if you ban beach fires, there is still a management issue. Fires are banned on Cox Beach, but we still have fires there. It’s not like the problem is just going to go away, we’re still going to need resources to manage those issues. We’re going to look at all options over the next little bit and see what makes the most sense and proceed from there,” he said.