Small communities still vulnerable to wildfires, says Forest Practices Board

The provincial government's strategy for protecting communities from wildfires has worked for many larger communities such as Prince George, but has not been ideal for smaller ones, the Forest Practices Board said in a report highly critical of the slow progress made in B.C.

In the 10 years since the release of the Filmon Report, which set out measures to prevent a repeat of the extensive damage that struck the Okanagan particularly hard in 2003, no more than 10 per cent of hazardous forest fuels have been treated, the FPB said in the report, issued this week.

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Part of the problem is that the current approach "requires numerous local governments to develop expertise and to use scarce resources and capacity to manage the wildfire hazard," the FPB said.

"This model has worked for many larger communities such as Kelowna, Kamloops and Prince George, but it is not ideal for smaller communities."

In answer, the FPB suggests shifting the role of local governments from "doer to facilitator" while the provincial government would "take a stronger role in technical leadership and project management."

From 2005 to 2011, the City of Prince George leveraged

$1 million of its own money with another $6.5 million from other sources, including the province, to treat about 500 hectares of timber to reduce the risk.

A community forest was also established that gave the city harvesting rights to about 4,800 hectares of forested Crown land within the city. But in early 2014, the city gave up the tenure as funding sources dried up and it no longer employs a community forest manager.

A separate agreement for land outside the city's borders is being managed by the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George, in partnership with the Lheidli T'enneh and the Prince George Cattlemen Association. The report pointed to work done in the Vanderhoof Forest District as a success story.

Among the causes cited for the slow going was a failure to enlist the equipment and expertise of the forest industry, with the Vanderhoof Forest District "a notable exception."

Largely through a small scale salvage program launched in 2005 and featuring competitive forestry "licences-to-cut" to reduce stumpage costs, two-kilometre buffers around communities in the forest district were targeted.

Progress has reached the point where there are now "very few patches of economically harvestable dead pine" within those buffers and the program is now focussed on areas further afield.

In a response, a Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations spokesperson said that since 2004, the provincial government has provided $67 million to the strategic wildfire prevention initiative, including $5 million announced in March.

"This fund was set up specifically to help communities and First Nations mitigate wildfire threats," the spokesperson said.

As of March 31, 284 community wildfire protection plans have been completed by local governments and First Nations and another 33 are in progress.

The report comes out just as forest fire season has begun in B.C. The massive Little Bobtail Lake forest fire in the Prince George Forest District covered 25,000 hectares by the time it was contained last week, although no homes were damaged.

"B.C. has been lucky it hasn't had any catastrophic urban interface fires since Kelowna in 2003, but that has been luck and nothing more," FPB chair Tim Ryan said in a press release.

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