Opinion: Can centralized wildfire control be improved in BC?

By Jim Hilton –

When I started working in the forest service in 1974 (in what was then known as the Caribou Forest Region) there were forest districts (Ranger Districts) in Tatla Lake, Alexis Creek, Riske Creek, Williams Lake, Horsefly, Likely, 100 Mile, Clinton, and Quesnel (east and west) and, if I recall correctly, a field office in Anahim Lake. In offices like Tatla Lake and Alexis Creek most of the work was involved with Range (permit administration with the local ranchers), some timber administration, and lots of fire fighting in the summer when conditions were hot.

Summer students were often hired for work in a wide variety of disciplines including fire fighting. When there was a fire flap, fire crews would move throughout the region to help out and all staff at the district and field offices might get involved in a busy fire year. In some cases, the regional staff got involved, especially if they had fire fighting experience. Shortly after I retired in 2002 more centralization had taken place in the Forest Service with many districts, field offices, and regions closed.

Centralization has been used by many organizations as a cost saving practice and will likely continue in times of reduced revenues. As in all reorganization attempts there are some drawbacks, especially in the more remote communities. One of the main drawbacks is a breakdown in connections between the local population and government staff in all disciplines and especially with fire fighting activities.

Prior to the 2017 fire season, it is interesting to look at 2010, which was an especially busy fire season for the Cariboo region when hot, dry conditions, along with a lightning storm at the end of July, caused 130 confirmed fires in the Cariboo and 381 confirmed fires throughout the province. The Cariboo Fire Center (at the Williams Lake airport) consisted of 12 initial attack crews (three-person) and four unit crews (20-person) with the unit crews being divided up (usually five-person crews) into smaller units to increase initial attack capability. At the provincial level (all fires centers combined) there were 132 initial attack crews and 28 unit crews, which proved insufficient to deal with all 381 confirmed fires in the two-day period. As a result, some fires were left to burn until resources became available and the situation was made worse in mid-August when a cold front with high winds caused enormous growth of the fires.

The result was the development of four major fire “complexes” in a sparsely populated area but there was still a need to evacuate 700 people with many more on alert. To my knowledge this was the first time an evacuation of this size took place in the Cariboo Region so it is understandable that there was some criticism of how the evacuation was handled by the Cariboo Regional District.

There was also considerable concern about how the fires could get to the stage they did. While residents had some sympathy with the fire center staff, pointing out the combination of unusual weather events and high fuel types and unheard of number of lightning strikes, residents felt there should have been more adequate contingency planning to deal with this type of situation.

Now, in 2017, locals are probably thinking about the past when fire control was viewed as everyone’s responsibility and, if warranted, they could be called upon to fight fire. It was common practice to have members of the local community identified, trained, and on call to take action as required (e.g. Forest Warden program). In addition, forest industry staff with qualified individuals could also be called upon.

Fire center staff felt the lack of immediate resources was the root cause for many fires getting out of control but locals questioned this. Many felt there was no shortage but a slowness of recognizing and using existing physical and human resources. Locals believed there were resources over a full spectrum of fire fighting activity that could have been available almost immediately if they would have been called upon.

With climate change likely to make fire conditions worse, maybe it is time to rethink the decentralization of activities like fire fighting and take advantage of local knowledge and resources.

Jim Hilton is a retired registered professional forester and has lived in the Williams Lake area since 1974.

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