It’s time for a national focus on wildfire

Recent wildfire seasons in British Columbia and the devastating situation in Fort McMurray have shown that no province can go it alone

Steve Thomson

VICTORIA – As a member of the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, I was proud to co-sponsor the release of the Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy: A 10-year Review and Renewed Call to Action.

Recent wildfire seasons in British Columbia and the devastating situation in Fort McMurray have shown all of us that no province can go it alone when fighting wildfires. We need a cohesive, national strategy to ensure we are all better prepared.

The original Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy was released in 2005 with three goals: resilient communities and an empowered public; healthy and productive forest ecosystems; and state-of-the-art wildfire preparedness and response capability. These goals remain true today. While great progress has been made over the last 10 years, more needs to be done. The Renewed Call to Action identifies priorities and next steps.

Although the strategy was endorsed by the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, wildfire is not only a forestry issue. How we prevent wildfires and respond to wildfires is a significant public-safety, public-health, First Nation, community and climate-change issue. Better collaboration is needed between federal agencies and between provinces, territories and the federal government.

In addition to enhanced collaboration, the strategy calls for increased investment in innovation, enhancing prevention and mitigation, enhancing the commitment to FireSmart and increasing preparedness capacity.

Just this past year, in British Columbia we have taken steps to enhance prevention. As part of Balanced Budget 2016, funding to the Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative was increased by $10 million, bringing government’s total investment since 2004 to $78 million.

Under the program, 290 community wildfire protection plans have been completed by local governments and First Nations. As of March 31, 2016, almost 80,000 hectares of land in and around communities that face a significant wildfire risk have been treated.

Also, as part of Balanced Budget 2016, government announced the creation of the new Forest Enhancement Society, which will be supported by $85 million, to focus on wildfire risk reduction in areas outside local-government jurisdiction.

On April 1, 2016, increased ticket fines for 26 different violations under the Wildfire Act and wildfire regulation came into effect. For example, the fine for failing to comply with a fire restriction tripled – from $345 to $1,150.

We believe we are prepared for the 2016 wildfire season with 1,560 firefighters and support staff and over 2,500 contractors we can call on. We also have access to 33 fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, 79 ground-attack vehicles and additional short-term contract equipment.

Wildfire prevention is everyone’s responsibility – from homeowners living in rural areas, to local governments and provincial and federal governments.

Across the country, each province, territory and federal agency needs to do a better job of collaborating. All levels of governments need to make the necessary investments so together we can face the challenges ahead.

The strategy is online at: www.ccfm.org/pdf/2016%20Update_CWFS_layout_June9_2016.pdf

– Steve Thomson is B.C.’s Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.