Little being done to prevent urban wildfires in B.C.

Less than 10% of land in wooded residential areas treated for fire protection: report

Retired natural resources conservation professor Peter Dooling has built wildfire protection into his home, pictured in background, located in the wildland-urban interface above Naramata | Photo: Gordon Hamilton

It's the end of May and already the ponderosa pine forest around Peter Dooling’s Naramata residence, which he has named Castle Rock, is tinder dry.

Dooling, a retired professor of natural resource conservation at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of forestry, is one of thousands of people living in what is called the wildland-urban interface, the two-kilometre-wide forested area around B.C. communities comprising 6,850 square kilometres of land that the province has assessed to be at the highest risk of wildfire.

However, despite this high risk, a new Forest Practices Board report says that, with few exceptions, little progress is being made by the province and affected municipalities to prevent disastrous wildfires. The high cost of treatment – $10,000 per hectare – is a major deterrent.

“Although programs to prevent and reduce the intensity of interface fires have been developed, and progress has been made since 2004, this investigation found that most communities in B.C. remain vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire,” said the report, an update on a 2010 report on the wildfire issue.

The watchdog agency has been taking interest in the wildland, urban interface since 2003, when one fire alone, the Okanagan Mountain fire, forced the evacuation of 33,000 people from their homes.

Board chairman Tim Ryan said the board arrived at the cost per hectare by dividing the amount of money spent by the province – $30 million since 2010 – with the number of hectares treated: 3,000.

“The program costs in the range of $10,000 a hectare, which is out of this world, so there is clearly some room for improvement in terms of treatment efficiencies and, hopefully, on the administrative side. Because not that many hectares are being treated for the dollars being spent.”

Until those costs drop or more ways of leveraging funds are developed, Ryan said homeowners need to band together to protect themselves.

Forests Minister Steve Thomson said the government pegs the actual treatment costs at $5,600 per hectare. Even at that lesser cost, he said reducing catastrophic fires in wooded residential areas is going to require collaborative programs with municipalities, First Nations, industry and property owners.

“We recognize that the risk is there, but it takes a joint effort with all parties to address the risk, and we are going to continue to work at it over time.”

At Naramata, Dooling’s background has provided him with an understanding of the risks to the house that he and his wife, Debbie, have just completed high above Okanagan Lake. Their dream home, which they operate as a bed and breakfast, borders on the mixed pine and fir forest that blankets the highlands above them.

To counter the risk of wildfire, Dooling has built an extraordinary level of precaution into Castle Rock, a name that describes the striking rock formation on which the home is built. It’s also an apt descriptor for its fire defences. All development in the area must meet the “FireSmart” standard for residences. Dooling has installed one-inch water pipes and hoses on both sides of the property, has cached five-gallon containers of water at strategic locations to quickly douse spot fires and cleared his own property of dead needles and limbs that could fuel a ground fire. The exterior walls are stucco, and there is almost no exposed wood. If fire comes, he is prepared to get his family out safely, but he plans to stay and fight from a command post on the upper floor deck.

Dooling has also familiarized himself with the work done by wildfire crews to clear fuel buildup from alongside the Arawana forest service road above Naramata. That fuel management project is one example where progress is being made in reducing wildfire risk since the disastrous summer of 2003.

Despite successes like the Arawana Road project, less than 10% of the land within the wildland-urban interface has been treated for fire protection, according to the Forest Practices Board. Current programs, the report said, are not addressing the wildfire problem in a meaningful way and are unlikely to do so in the future.

The province has contributed $67 million to wildfire prevention programs since 2004, but the board said the scale of the problem is so large that the funding “is merely a drop in the bucket.”

Dooling is acutely aware of the limited ability of government agencies to protect the wildland-urban interface. On a tour of the Arawana Road site, he pointed out that areas that have been treated are mainly on the upside slope along the road, leading to the crest of ridge lines, which form a natural barrier to a fire’s spread. The downside slope is not at as high a risk because fire generally moves uphill. It has been left alone.

On the treatment sites, crews have cleared debris from the forest floor, removed low-hanging limbs and taken out small trees. The fuel management program is aimed at checking the spread of wildfires when they strike as well as creating a defensive line for fire crews.

Brush removal is largely aimed at limiting damage from a fire started by a careless smoker. But there is a downside to it, Dooling explained.

With the undergrowth and smaller trees removed, a green carpet of grass takes over underneath the remaining ponderosa pines, creating a park-like setting. That attracts more people into the interface, raising the risk of fire.

“There is a problem in making it look nice like this. Campers come up, kids come up for bonfires at night because it is such a nice place. And others just fly through it on their trail bikes, tearing it up.”

Dooling laments the absence of greater community awareness around the fire management issue.

“We are creatures of the forest habitat, but many of us are totally oblivious to it,” he said.