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.