BC Wildfire Strategy – An Urban/Rural divide?

BC Wildfire Service wildfire dashboard as of Sunday, July 11, 2021

“Nobody knows this land like those who have lived here for generations.“ Or if you want a song “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.”

Standing on a ranch access road watching an out-of-control fire in the Tunkwa Creek Valley near Ashcroft BC, rancher Mike Anderson, CEO of the Skeetchestn Natural Resources Corporation makes a strong and trenchant appeal for a new kind of cooperation between ranchers, landowners and local First Nations with the BC Wildfire Services and the BC Provincial Ministry of Forests.

“We know the land; we can bring local knowledge – water sources, roads, equipment, human resources, up to date mapping.”

He is joined by literally hundreds of local rural ranchers and farmers who seek a new and more respectful conversation with government officials; and they want it now.

To this city slicker, I cannot advocate one way or another how best to proceed. What I can suggest however is the urgent need for a new collaborative strategy. I can hear the voices of government, wanting to ensure safety of those living beyond city limits. I understand that wildfire response requires procedures and protocols which are intended to serve the needs of urban and rural dwellers province wide. In terms of strategy however, one size or shape does not fit all.

I hear that much wisdom, expertise and technical know-how is being wasted when ranchers are ordered off their land–land developed and worked over generations–especially when early fire intervention could mitigate the very real chance of out-of-control destruction, the likes of which we have never seen in BC.

In a related Facebook post Eric Haywood Farmer, himself an ER physician as well as a long-time multi-generational rancher, the plea is sharpened:

“Thus far, the government response to the wildfires is outrageous. It’s great that they saved Juniper Ridge (in Kamloops), fine. The problem is, they don’t seem to care at all about anyone who doesn’t live in a big city. The Sparks Lake fire is threatening farms all up the Deadman Valley, including my brother Mark. The edge of the fire can be seen from multiple properties all the way up. One farmer I know of spent all last night putting out spot fires all over his property. Farms and houses have already been lost at the top end of the valley.”

If individual voices are left unheard, the voice of local First Nations is likewise sidelined.  

“The Skeetchestn First Nation is threatened, and wanted to use their logging equipment to build a fire guard along the rim of the valley, but the Ministry of Forests (MOF) wouldn’t allow them to. And nary a firefighter, water bomber, or Ministry of Forests employee to be seen anywhere – they are all up on the southeast flank of the fire, because that’s the line closest to town.”

Here and now in the Central Interior of Canada’s most western (and some might argue most beautiful province) the recent heatwave caused temperatures to soar 50 above national historic high temperatures—and the season is still young. This new climate reality is here to stay; so we must prepare and respond differently. Locals remember well the Elephant Hill fire of 2017, during which similar pleas were expressed, and it seems ignored. The claim “nothing has changed” appears in messages verbal and written:

“The MOF needs to commit resources to actually saving rural properties, not just maintaining the flank of the fire closest to town” Hayward Farmer says. “I think people in Kamloops believe that if any home is threatened the cavalry will show up. It’s great that it does for them. But if you are out of town, the only resource you have is your neighbours. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

“Two local loggers have fought fires for years, had machinery in the Durand area, and were there at daylight to do what they could. The MOF showed up only to tell them they’d be arrested if they started their machines.”

Surely there is a better way to reduce anxiety, to honour the efforts of fire fighters of all sorts and in all situations. Surely technical skill and resources can blend well with local experience, wisdom and of course will.

We all want to protect what we have received here in BC, the natural resources upon which we depend and enjoy as our inheritance and for future generations. We want a robust environment for all species. We want to ensure safety for all.

For these things to happen however, something must change, and change now.

Ken Gray

A version of this post was sent to the Minister of Forests, to local MLAs, to CBC Kamloops and other individuals on Sunday, July 11, 2021

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