Sunday, September 03, 2017

Were the BC Liberals to Blame for Fire Season From Hell?

{This is a short column that I submitted last month to the Williams Lake Tribune, the 100 Mile Free Press, and Vanderhoof Omineca Express. So far it has not been accepted  by any of those papers,but I think it raises a pretty basic question and tries to come up with a fair answer.}

“Interface fires, which occur in places where wildland meets urban development, were at an all-time record high. The interface fires of last summer destroyed over 334 homes and many businesses, and forced the evacuation of over 45,000 people. The total cost of the Firestorm is estimated at $700 million.” Sound familiar?  Those words were written by the Hon. Gary Filmon thirteen and half years ago, in the Report of the Firestorm 2003 Review Committee.
That is why Bill Tieleman, a political columnist and left-wing political strategist in Vancouver,   recently wrote a piece provocatively titled “Blame BC Liberal Neglect, Not Climate Change, for Year of Fires”.  He alleges that that the Liberals ignored key recommendations of the Filmon report, pointing  out that over the years between 2006 and 2015, the government  spent only $8 million a year to remove fuels from just 80,000 of a total of 685,000 hectares of “high risk forest land”.  As then -NDP forest  critic Harry Bains pointed out in Question Period on March 3 2016, it took the government 12 years to treat just  8 percent of the land considered to be high risk by the Filmon Report.  Tieleman calls that the very epitome of the old saying: “Penny-wise, pound foolish.”
In fairness to the previous government, let me push back at Tieleman a bit.   I had initially reasoned that if it cost the government $80 million over a ten-year period to remove fuels from “just” 80,000 hectares, that would be only $1000 per hectare -- so it would have cost $685 million to fully implement the Filmon Report.   In fact, however the Forest Practices Board in its 2015 Report put the true cost of fully treating a hectare of land as somewhere between $5000 and $10,000, depending upon the terrain.  And the pine beetle epidemic and other factors have caused the amount of "high risk" forest to almost double  to 1, 347,000 hectares.   That means the total cost for treating all of the  high-risk forest land would be at least $6.7 billion.  ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees’. And no doubt land-use conflicts would arise closer to population centres, as thinning and prescribed burning would affect quality or value of privately-deeded or First Nations land.  As for Harry Bains and the NDP, why did they wait until March 2016 to start ringing the alarm bells in the Legislature? That leads me to wonder whether the NDP would have fully implemented  the Report’s recommendations, either: after all, politicians get more credit for responding to problems than they do for preventing them, most of the time.
Nevertheless, to those of us have been expecting another Big Fire season for years, the only wonder is that it didn’t happen much sooner. And the fact that the problem has grown bigger should have been a reason for doing more, not an excuse for doing less. It was always obvious that even the partial implementation of the Filmon Report--such as we might have expected under an NDP government--would have been a very worthwhile investment.  For example, an extra $16 million per year over 2006-2015 could have removed extraneous fuel from another 1000-2000 hectares on average surrounding  16 population centres in the interior.  Admittedly, one or two thousand hectares is not a lot to show for 10 years work  and $10 million dollars spent, but in the land adjacent to Williams Lake and 100 Mile House it would have made a significant difference, and would have freed up more firefighters to help smaller communities in the Chilcotin. As the B.C Forest Practices Board pointed out in its Report in 2015, “hazard mitigation costs less than wildfires when all costs are tallied.” No kidding.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Were The Fires Forseeable?

My parents moved to the  Cariboo in the spring of 1973. Despite my initial misgivings, I soon came to be grateful that they did, not least because  it put me into direct contact with two things that despite their fundamental nature had been pushed to the margins of my consciousness in the suburbs of Vancouver:  First Nations people and the working Forest.  With the Forest naturally came an awareness every summer of forest fires.   Since my parents’ house was  in the Wildwood area , at the foot of the airport hill, I jumped at the chance along with my brother  to get an opportunity to work at the Tanker Base at the Williams Lake Airport the following summer, mostly washing the airplanes between missions and while they were being re-fuelled.  I could see what tough, hot important work it was.  It was also dangerous: we even lost two pilots that summer. 

Flash forward 30 years, and I stopped at my parents’ home  in August 2003 en route to a teaching position at the University of Northern British Columbia.  That was the worst fire summer we had had up to that point,  and the smoke-filled sky  and several charred patches of forest that were visible from the highway were seared in my memory.  Still, as our understanding of climate change grew and the number of dead and dried out trees multiplied due to the pine beetle epidemic, I expected that another, much more serious fire season than 2003 was bound to happen. Well, it finally did, and we are living through it now.  (Of course, professional foresters will tell you that my theory about pine beetles and climate change is a little simplistic --sometimes wetter areas with more living trees can become more flammable if they go through an unusually dry spell, because they deposit more fuel on the forest floor, and the fire spreads more quickly from crowns of trees, etc.  Whatever the precise combination of factors, it seems that we had just the right mix of factors this year.)

It is of course too early to point blame at anyone, but I wonder if it is pure coincidence that  so many of the worst fires occurred near population centres?  Is it possible that governments, failing to take heed of the terrible fire season of 2003, did not put enough money into controlled burning near Cache Creek, Ashcroft, 100 Mile and Williams Lake?  It would have required budgeting more money for that purpose, and it would have had the effect of inconveniencing a lot of people with a lot of smoke, so it is perfectly understandable that  such an error of omission could have happened.   I am not an expert, so I don’t pretend to know.  But I am asking the question, and I am expecting some answers. One other thing I want to say: Thanks to all the volunteers.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

The Incredible Christy Clark

{An earlier version of the following column was written for the July, 2017  issue of the Anahim-Nimpo Lake Messenger--MC}


“Incredible” is one of the most over-used and mis-used adjectives in the English language. I generally avoid using it altogether, except I find that it is the best word to describe  our recently-deposed B.C. premier, Christy Clark.  As I see it, the premier’s strategy of trying to embarrass the NDP by placing several of the NDP’s key policies in the Throne Speech is problematic in policy terms and likely to backfire politically.  In terms of policy, what she is saying is that, if the Liberals had gotten 189 more votes in the Courtney-Comox riding, thereby securing a majority of seats in the Legislature, it would somehow have been better to not spend a billion dollars on new child care spaces, or to raise welfare rates by $100 per month, or to have a moratorium on the Massey Bridge, or to have  a ban on corporate and union donations. But, since the Liberals failed to get a majority and were facing defeat on a confidence motion in the Legislature,  these things all of a sudden became the ‘best’ things to do. 

Call me old-fashioned, but either child care is a good thing or it isn’t.  Premiers owe it to their voters to stick to the principles they campaigned on, or they lose credibility with those voters.  For example, if Clark and the Liberals had fallen on the sword of their own platform, and we had  another election in six months’ time, I would expect Conservative voters to see the error of their vote-splitting ways and vote Liberal in enough numbers to win more ridings like Courtney-Comox.  But since the Liberals ignored their own platform and tried to enact the same  tax and spend agenda that they had campaigned against, Conservative voters may learn to trust the Liberals even less.  Then there are the urgent questions of Site C and Kinder-Morgan--you know, the reasons Clark said in May that it was urgent to re-convene the Legislature, until she realized that by dragging her feet before legislation could be changed, she could fill Liberal coffers with new corporate donations.  Incredible.

Most incredible of all are  the messes at ICBC and BC Hydro. At ICBC , it was revealed this year that insurance rates had been suppressed for political reasons and that the Corporation had been forced to raid its capital reserves to the tune of about $500 million. Meanwhile , over at BC Hydro, the Liberal cabinet--which had stripped the BC Utilities Commission of its rate-setting authority in 2012-- has been setting BC Hydro’s annual rate increases well below the actual cost of acquiring and distributing electricity. BC Hydro has been forced to take on debt in order to pay $1.3 billion in dividends to the BC government. These practices have increased BC Hydro’s debt to the point that Moody’s is warning that this trend may threaten the province’s credit rating. 

Of course, the Liberals could just let the NDP government and its allies in the Green Party take the heat for any such downgrade while they are in office, along with the unavoidable rate increases at ICBC and BC Hydro,  making it easier for the Liberals to return to power  in 6-18 months  with a grinning Christy Clark once again recapturing the premier’s chair.  Given who is truly responsible for these messes, that would be “incredible”. But don’t bet against it.