Keith McNeill is editor of the Clearwater Times newspaper.

Wildfire preparation and response inadequate

The shortcomings of 2003 appear to be being repeated during the wildfires of 2017

One of the main complaints heard in the North Thompson Valley during the wildfires of 2003 was that not enough use was made of local resources, especially local loggers.

Local people with years of firefighting experience were sitting at home while others with no experience were being brought in from elsewhere.

That shortcoming, unfortunately, appears to be being repeated during the wildfires of 2017.

We heard during the information meeting held Sunday evening at Clearwater Secondary School that local loggers could not be used because there the BC Wildfire Service did not have enough resources to supervise them.

Well, whose fault is that?

It used to be that, if there was a fire emergency, what was then the Forest Protection Branch would call on resources from the forests ministry to help out.

Most of those people had experience in supervisory roles on fires. They knew the bush and the people who worked in it.

Today, where are they?

The forest ministry office in Clearwater used to be full of workers – in fact, it was overfull and needed portables to house some of them.

Now, there is only a skeleton staff working there during normal times.

Despite the big “Headwaters Forest District” sign still up in front, the local forest district is no more and all the increasingly limited oversight of the forest companies is done by remote control from Kamloops and Victoria.

Your editor was shocked after the fires broke out on Friday to find that the Clearwater Fire Zone office in the forests ministry office building was empty (I know because a local sub-contractor who works for them went in to check while I was there).

It appears that what I understand was the single wildfire officer on duty at the time was out assessing the situation – which was a good thing to do – but there was no one back minding the store while he was gone.

In previous times, if big fires had broken out, there would have been at least a half-dozen people in the office , working the phones and bringing in resources to hit the fires at first light in the morning.

Your editor was disappointed although not surprised during Sunday evening’s information meeting that the regional BC Emergency Program did not seem familiar with the North Thompson Valley’s vulnerability regarding electrical power.

There is only one power-line up the valley and if, as happened in 2003, that power-line is cut, then the communities and households in the valley have no electricity until it is restored.

Back in 2003 we depended on large diesel gen-sets to keep food fresh at the grocery store and to operate other essential services.

Except in the most extreme circumstances, Clearwater can be defended from forest fires.

We have the two rivers, the highway, roads, fields, the power-line and so on that could be integrated into a defensible space.

We might lose a few houses in the periphery, but the central part of town could be saved – but if and only if there is power to operate the pumps to keep the town water supply fully charged.

Premier Christy Clark (and she is still premier until July 18) was in Kamloops on Sunday to announce $100 million for disaster relief to help those evacuated due to the wildfires across the province.

It is good to see the money that Clark announced going to those who need it, but $100 million spent a few years ago to help rural B.C. communities buy pumps, generators sets, hoses and sprinkler systems they need to protect themselves would have been a better investment.

Yes, BC Wildfire Service’s Type 1 firefighting crews are the best available. However, loggers with local knowledge are pretty close behind – and if it is a situation where they can use their heavy equipment, (and you’d be amazed where they can go) there is really no comparison – one feller-buncher can do more in a day than dozens of workers with chain-saws.

We are in an emergency situation and, while it is important to give feedback to point out shortcomings, there isn’t much that can be accomplished by complaining too much.

Looking ahead, though, we need a comprehensive, province-wide strategy to deal with the consequences of human-caused climate change.

According to one BC Forest Service scenario, by 2080 the climate will have warmed so much that there will be sagebrush growing north of Clearwater Lake.

Like it or not, each year it’s going to get a little bit hotter and a little bit windier, and wildfires are going to get more common and more extreme as a result.

 

Leon “Bimbo” MacDonald parks his low-bed next to the road a short distance north of Dunn Lake at about noon on Saturday as he waits for instructions. “Why wasn’t that piece of equipment digging guard next to the fire at first light?” asks your editor.