As B.C. spends hundreds of millions fighting one of the province’s worst wildfire seasons, critics are questioning the relatively small amount earmarked for wildfire prevention and whether those funds are being used efficiently.
Following devastating wildfires in 2003, the province provided nearly $68 million over 10 years for wildfire prevention for communities that have populated areas near the forest.
The funds are administered by the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM), which has disbursed $55 million to communities between 2004 and 2015. Of that total, $9.2 million is earmarked for past and future administration costs and $3.5 million for future grants.
In a May report, the B.C. Forest Practices Board highlighted that between 2004 and 2014, only 6,000 hectares – 10% of the province’s high-risk areas – have been treated.
According to the forestry watchdog, that amounts to a per-hectare cost of around $10,000, but the UBCM says the cost is closer to $5,700 and that by June 2015, 8,400 hectares had been treated. Municipalities can use the funds to create wildfire prevention plans, educate homeowners and clear forest underbrush that can lead to intense fires.
Forest Practices Board chairman Tim Ryan questioned where the rest of the money is going and why so few areas have been treated during the program’s 10-year existence. Ryan has yet to hear back from the province, but he said it often takes around six months for government to respond to a report, especially if there are recommendations.
But he planned to raise the issue at an upcoming meeting with officials from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
“The costs of fighting a fire and the resulting losses afterwards if it does burn up our communities and infrastructure are much higher than if we take the time to protect those communities as best we can,” he said.
In 2003, Kelowna experienced those losses first-hand when more than 200 houses burned during the Okanagan Mountain Park fire. The city has since instituted a robust fire prevention program and pays for a professional forester with fire experience to manage it.
But many of B.C.’s smaller communities don’t have those kinds of resources, said Andrew Hunsberger, the forester responsible for managing Kelowna’s program.
“A lot of these [fire prevention] plans just sit on the shelf,” he said.
Hunsberger praised how the UBCM has managed the wildfire strategy program, but the time required to apply for the money, report on what the money was used for and hire and manage contractors for the projects amounts to a full-time job.
He said regional districts might have the resources to hire a professional forester who could then work with multiple communities. Ryan added that municipal government and resident skittishness about prescribed burning, a technique to clear the underbrush, could also be contributing to the high cost of the program.
“People have avoided doing it because it’s unpopular, and really it needs to be done if we’re going to keep towns safe,” said John Innes, dean of the University of British Columbia’s faculty of forestry, of prescribed burning.
When humans suppress natural wildfires, the chance of a major forest fire increases because underbrush and dead wood piles up in the forest. Prescribed burning mimics the way small ground fires “clean up” the forest in nature.