Christine Gelowitz: Time for a proactive approach to wildfire — we know the solutions and we have the expertise

Opinion: The time for waiting and conducting more studies is over — every dollar spent on prevention and mitigation saves $5 to $15 spent on fighting wildfires.

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Wildfires are part of the natural ecosystem — have been for thousands of years and will continue to be in the future.

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While the scale and impact of wildfire in B.C. appears to be increasing exponentially, there are more steps we could take to protect our communities and the forest, and to improve our ability to respond to and minimize the impact of wildfires.

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But doing so will not be easy or simple. It takes co-operation among the public, landowners, forest professionals, First Nations, firefighters, emergency responders and, most importantly, elected government representatives.

The concept of preventing and mitigating the effects of wildfire goes back decades. Many homeowners and communities nestled in forested areas, like Logan Lake, have firsthand experience with the benefits of wildfire prevention programs.

In 2021, when the Tremont wildfire threatened the town, the work prescribed by a team of forest pros over the years to reduce the forest fuel load in the adjacent community forest, along with the efforts of firefighters, was largely credited with saving the community.

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The core ingredients for a new vision and approach to wildfire is readily available in B.C. if governments are ready to make the investment and drive the required policy changes.

Good ideas abound.

Media coverage of this year’s wildfire season is filled with specific proposals and suggestions for change from fire and forestry experts and researchers.

The B.C. government has a pair of excellent reports featuring more than 160 recommendations on steps we could take: the 2017 wildfire and flood review led by George Abbott and Chief Maureen Chapman, and the 2003 firestorm report from Gary Filmon.

And earlier this year, the B.C. Forest Practices Board released a special report urging the provincial government to align policies and programs across all levels of government to enable landscape-level fire management.

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While the provincial government has taken action on some of the recommendations, mostly those related to wildfire response, others remain in limbo despite being considered by experts to be valuable and critical to helping the province adapt to the increased presence of wildfires.

Then there’s the issue of money. Making our communities more resilient to wildfire will be expensive. Who pays and how much? The province has spent billions of dollars, most of it unbudgeted, on fighting wildfires, not to mention spending in response to flooding and landslides when burned slopes couldn’t absorb rainfall and snowmelt.

https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/the-summer-canada-burned-postmedia-to-publish-book-on-2023-wildfires

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But what if government made big investments in the wildfire problem in advance? In 2022, The Vancouver Sun reported that provincial spending on fighting wildfires was $4.16 billion since 2008 while only $224 million was spent on wildfire prevention.

Dr. Mike Flannigan of Thompson Rivers University, an expert on wildfire behaviour and landscape fire modelling, estimates that every dollar spent on prevention and mitigation saves $5 to $15 spent on fighting wildfires.

The time for waiting and conducting more studies is over. In many communities, the planning is completed and solutions have been tabled. Now they need to be implemented by policy and government funding at a scale comparable with the efforts devoted to wildfire emergency response.

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B.C. has skilled and competent people who can help move wildfire prevention and mitigation activities forward: people who work in our forests, who are part of the communities threatened by wildfire, and who understand the full range of values at stake.

Many of these people are registered forest pros working in provincial and municipal governments, for First Nation governments, for forest companies, for forest and environmental consulting firms, or teaching and researching at our universities and colleges.

We know the solutions. We have the expertise. Now we just need the will to act.

Christine Gelowitz, RPF, is the chief executive officer of Forest Professionals B.C., the regulatory agency for forest pros.

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