B.C. report on wildfires, floods recommends new disaster management approach
The Philpot Road wildfire is seen along a hillside just outside of Kelowna, B.C., on August 28, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, May 11, 2018 12:15PM PDT
VICTORIA - An independent review of British Columbia's response to last year's wildfires and flooding recommends fighting fire with fire to protect communities and future forests.
The report, “Addressing the New Normal: 21st Century Disaster Management in B.C.,” makes 108 recommendations and calls for an overhaul of disaster response practices.
Wildfires and floods last year displaced 65,000 people in the province.
The unprecedented fire season prompted the government to declare a state of emergency, while scorching homes and properties along with more than 1.2 million hectares of land and forest. The fire fight cost the province more than $630 million.
Former Liberal cabinet minister George Abbott and hereditary chief Maureen Chapman, of the Skawahlook First Nation in Agassiz, B.C., were appointed last December to undertake the first major examination of fire response programs since 2003, when about 2,500 fires destroyed more than 300 homes and businesses in the province.
Abbott said after releasing the report Thursday that he came to endorse the practice of prescribed burns as a fire prevention tool after meeting with local residents, Indigenous leaders, academics and government experts during public and private meetings for the review.
He said when he was B.C.'s health minister eight years ago, he would have rejected prescribed burns of forest lands because of the health hazard caused by the smoke.
“Yes, we need to do this, particularly in those areas like the Kootenay where there's, I think, significant consensus emerging around that. Also in areas like Kamloops, Cariboo and Okanagan,” Abbott said. “They offer, I think, a realistic way of providing prevention and community safety.”
Chapman said Indigenous people have used prescribed burns of forests as a fire prevention method for many years.
The review stated there should be a partnership with First Nations, local, provincial and federal governments to better prepare for emergencies. It did not include an estimate of how much it would cost to implement the recommendations.
The report says last year's experience “demonstrated the consequences of ignoring the growing gap” between spending on response versus mitigating the impact of disasters through planning, preparedness and prevention.
“The time to invest is now,” the report says.
A report done by former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon after the 2003 wildfire situation called on the government and municipalities to fireproof forests around communities and suggested the province had an opportunity to implement strict fire reduction initiatives through policies and legislation.
Forests Minister Doug Donaldson said the government has internal reports gauging its response last summer, but wanted an independent review that included recommendations.
He said 19 of the report's 108 recommendations have already been implemented and the government will introduce its complete forest and flood action plan by Oct. 31, 2018.
Green party Leader Andrew Weaver said in a statement the review underscores B.C.'s need to meet its climate targets.
The fires lasted 10 weeks, the longest fire season in the provincial history.
Most of the central Interior city of Williams Lake was evacuated for nearly two weeks in July when a fire threatened it.
There were no fatalities in the 1,342 fires.
In an online survey done for the review about flooding, the report says nearly half of those who responded felt their community was unprepared leading up to the floods of 2017.
Last year, flooding devastated areas of the south and central Okanagan, Kootenay and Shuswap regions.
On Thursday, evacuation orders were issued for about 1,500 properties facing floods in the southern Interior area along the Granby, Kettle and West Kettle areas.