FYI – Fire crews hit red tape: MLA

B.C. forest firefighters were kept waiting by missing port-a-potty

The bureaucracy of fighting wildfires and red-tape obstacles firefighters face was never more apparent to John Rustad than when he heard about a missing biffy delay that kept a fire crew waiting while the forest around them burned.

“This summer we had crews sitting by the side of the road for five hours waiting for a port-a-potty to come in before they could do the work,” said Rustad, the opposition critic for Forests, Lands and Natural Resources.

“These are the kinds of things that need to be dealt with.”

A BC Wildfire Service report issued earlier this month determined the province spent $565 million fighting 1,610 wildfires that scorched 8,682 square-kilometres between April 1 and Sept. 30. That pales in comparison to 2017, when $649 million was spent fighting fires that burnt 12,000 square-kilometres.

At the height of the fire season in late-June and early-July, when the province was enveloped by a heat dome that caused record-breaking temperatures all over B.C., there were as many as 300 wildfires burning in one day. Aided by the sweltering heat and frequent dry lightning flashes dozens of new fires were starting every day, one of which destroyed the village of Lytton and killed two of its residents. Sixty per cent of B.C’s wildfires in 2021 were human caused, 35 per cent were due to lightning or other natural causes and the origin of five per cent was undetermined.

During the entire season there were 67 wildfires of note, most centred in southern or southeastern B.C. That resulted in 181 evacuation orders, 304 evacuation alerts, and the declaration of a state of emergency from July 21-Sept. 14.

The BC Wildfire Service hired 4,000 firefighters, including crews from Mexico, Australia and Eastern Canada to put out the fires.

Rustad says there are lessons to be learned from the long fire season and he’s trying to convince the government and BC Wildfire Service to be more open to ideas that will create a more responsive, more effective firefighting force.

“When it comes to fighting fires themselves, B.C. Wildfire Service is really good at initial-attack crews,” said Rustad. “They get in and get the vast majority of fires out quickly. The problem is when they can’t get into a fire because they’re too busy. Instead of having private-sector crews that could go in and deal with it, B.C. Wildfire insists that they have to do an assessment before they allow any crews to go in.

“Part of that is Worksafe BC (regulations) and part of that is policy within the ministry, but sometimes these fires can burn for days before anybody can go in and do an assessment, where (private) crews could get in and put it out.”

Rustad, the Liberal MLA for Nechako Lakes, said there was at least one example of that in the 2018 wildfire season in the southern Interior in which a two-day delay in getting a B.C. Wildfire assessment turned a small fire in an unpopulated area into a raging out-of-control inferno that covered thousands of hectates and burned for weeks.

Closer to home, the Nadina Lake-Island Lake-Verdun Mountain fire south and west of Francois Lake in August 2018 burned for more than month and prompted an evacuation order. The RCMP set up a blockade on the north terminal of the Francois Lake ferry and only allowed firefighters and emergency crews to cross the lake, cutting off supplies to residents of the south side who chose to stay and try to save their properties and livestock.

“Back in 2018 the people on the south side of Francois Lake were basically under siege, they were allowed to leave but they weren’t allowed to come back in or get supplies brought in and they wanted to stay behind to protect their homes,” said Rustad.

“I encourage everybody to be safe and to obey those orders but if people want to stay, figure out how to support them and how you can work with them. They’re going to stay, and you shouldn’t be starving them out. The same thing happened this year in the Paxton Valley area (southeast of Kamloops near Monte Lake). The Wildfire Service needs to change how it works with locals and communities.”

Rustad says there’s no reason why helicopter and fixed-wing pilots fighting wildfire in B.C. can’t be trained in the use of night-vision technology, which is being used extensively in other jurisdictions.

“We should be pushing Transport Canada to allow us to be able to use night-vision goggles for aircraft, because the best time to fight a fire is at night,” said Rustad. “Winds tend to be down and you can get in and actually make progress. We’ve got challenging (mountainous) terrain, but I know they do it in California and Australia, at least that’s what I’ve heard. We have the technology, it’s just that we’re not allowed to use them.”

Rustad pointed to the fact the province no longer conducts broadcast burns over concerns about air quality. That allows fuel loads to build, which increases the likelihood of forest fires and adds to their intensity.

B.C. firefighters almost exclusively use three-inch hoses to deliver water to flames and Rustad wants to see more six- and eight-inches hoses tapping lakes and rivers and hooked through manifolds to high-pressure pumps to create water curtains that effectively stop fires from spreading.

“That’s technology they’re resistant to use and I can’t understand why,” said Rustad. “I’ve had many conversations with the head of B.C. Wildfire Service about these changes and I hate to say it, because the people working on the ground and the people in there doing their best and trying hard, but there’s almost like there’s a bit of arrogance, like they know best, and that’s really unfortunate.

“If we’re going to make any real progress we have to be open to these kind of changes and that’s what’s needed going forward.”

Before the 2003 wildfire season, which killed three pilots, destroyed 334 homes and resulted in a $700 million cost for firefighting and property damage, Rustad said structural protection units were thought of as being a waste of time and were rarely used. Not anymore. Now, whenever possible, those units are in place on standby whenever a populated area is being threatened by an interface fire. But before 2003 there was resistance to using that kind of structural protection strategy.

“When you look at the cost in terms of timber, in farms and in structures, it’s worth sending the money to do these kinds of things,” Rustad said. “I would much rather spend a few dollars on prevention and then not need it, than not spend the money and have the kind of situations we had this year and in previous years.”

In June, the NDP government tabled Bill 23, which increases local control over forests and brings First Nations into shared decision-making with government authorities on forest management practices. Changes proposed in the bill would allow the chief forester to set stocking standards for replanting harvested areas and have the authority to order reforestation to be focused on high-priority areas. The amendments allow for wildland buffers which will leave less-combustible stands of deciduous vegetation in interface areas between communities and forests.

“The changes the NDP have introduced in Bill 23 could be helpful, but the devil will be in the detail to see how that works in terms of helping to manage the landscape a little bit better,” said Rustad.

Ted Clarke, Prince George Citizen – Nov 14, 2021 / 4:56 pm | Story: 351560

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