Responding to a Rapid Burn
October 11, 2017 By Paul Dixon
Rain has finally arrived on B.C.’s south coast – and maybe, just maybe, there will be an end to the 2017 fire season. It’s been a record year for wildfires in B.C. and as we passed through the Labour Day weekend, the nominal finish line, there was no end in sight.
It is mind-boggling to get your head wrapped up around what has happened this year and what continues to happen in B.C. We may well have reached the tipping point. Are we going over or can we pull back in time? That’s a question that needs to be addressed and the sooner, the better.
The irony of this summer is that by most indicators there wasn’t much to worry about earlier in the season and then suddenly, at the beginning of July – WHAM! The fire season literally exploded during the first week of that month, forcing a wave of evacuations throughout central B.C. The irony of the situation it the evacuation centres that received fire victims were still dealing with people who had been driven out of their homes by flooding.
Think about that for a moment – from floods to wildfires in the space of little more than a week. There are three mega-fires from that first week in July, still burning well into September – all still classed as “out of control.” The Plateau fire, west of Williams Lake, is the result of a number of major and minor fires coming together as it were. Today, it is estimated to cover 525,000 hectares, just slightly less area than Prince Edward Island. To the southwest of Williams Lake is the Hanceville Fire at 295,000 hectares, while the Elephant Hill Fire near Ashcroft is about 195,000 hectares. Based on the numbers released by BC Wildfire Service, there are approximately 1,400 firefighters and more than 50 helicopters engaged on those three fires.
Over the past 10 years, the average annual loss to wildfire has been 155,000 hectares. As of mid September, 2017 is approaching 1.2 million hectares, almost twice the size of Toronto by comparison. The losses are staggering. It’s not just the people who have lost their homes and everything that entails. Some 53 million cubic metres of timber are gone in B.C., lost forever. The economic impact on the forestry and resource sectors is incalculable at this time. The summer tourist season has been lost for a huge portion of the province and that is another key economic driver in the region. The reality is that as houses and businesses are lost and jobs put on hold or disappear altogether, the bills still have to be paid. Mortgages. Rent. Business loans. The damage is so much deeper than just the scars left by the fires.
The province of B.C. needs to reassess its entire firefighting philosophy. B.C. is not in this situation alone – it’s certainly a global occurrence and the future is going to get worse not better. One of the axioms of emergency management is that no matter what you are doing and no matter how dire the situation is, it can always get worse and you need to be learning from today to be better tomorrow.
The B.C. government has exclusive contracts for half a dozen medium and light helicopters, relying on call-when-needed agreements for additional resources, especially heavy-lift. For the time I’ve been following the rotary world on the West Coast, this is one issue that sticks in the craw of local operators that fly the big iron. They sign up at the beginning of the season, but I have to wonder how many machines are still in-province if and when the need arises. When they need those helicopters, they need them today, not tomorrow and definitely not next week.
Adding to the frustration level in B.C. this year has been the slow-motion swing of the political pendulum from the Liberals to the minority NDP government. That only took about four months to happen and for much of that time, not to mention the run up to the election in May, there has been very little actual leadership from government.
It’s time to start thinking about a more strategic plan in terms of what resources will be contracted and where they will be placed. The time to start preparing for next year is now. Spending a little more money up front to increase available resources could pay huge dividends down the road. Just ask someone who’s home and job went up in smoke this year.
Paul Dixon is a freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.