After two years of smoke in the Okanagan Valley and the threats of wildfires, 2019 was relatively smoke free, but speakers at the Wildfire Urban Interface presentation Thursday evening in Vernon reminded those in attendance that “British Columbia is experiencing severe wildfire conditions and there is an immediate need to change how we address the hazards associated with longer fire seasons and extreme conditions”.
Hosted by Vernon Fire Rescue Services (VFRS), the information session provided information as to how communities and individual property owners can protect themselves against wildfire threats.
Vernon Mayor Walter Cummings said that fires were his number one concern, one that keeps him awake at night after dealing with thousands of victims of fires in previous years. “It’s really important for everyone to understand fuel loads, the effects of climate change and the problems faced by people moving into interface areas. He made reference to photos of early Vernon that he saw in the Cadet Museum that showed the spread of housing since the early 1900s.
Fire Chief David Lind introduced a video, “Era of Megafires”, by Dr. Paul Hessburg (Pacific Northwest Research Station, U.S. Forest Service) which showed the devastation of these 100,000 acre fires. In the film, Hessburg stated that there is a need to restore historic, resilient landscapes by using prescribed burns, mechanical thinning and reducing fuels.
Craig Moore of the Okanagan Indian Band supported the need for described burning. “In the early days, burning helped provide access to better hunting areas and decreased the scale of large fires, enhanced the growth of natural vegetations and increased the population of animals,” he said.
Bob Gray, City of Vernon Fire Ecologist, outlined the projects that the city is taking to manage fuel loads. “There was no window for burns this year,” he said, and working with BC Wild Fire Services, plans are in place for late next March or early April.
Gray also spoke of the Eastside Road project and the challenges faced by residents because there is only one egress. The plan is to make contact with every landowner and work out mobility, communication and property use.
Ray Croft, District Manager of the BC Ministry of Lands and Forests noted that every single project is in cooperation with the OKIB. He was in Penticton during the Rank 6 Garnet Fire that burned for three weeks. “We lost 22 structures and it was a wake up call, but it didn’t lead to a call for action,” he said. But after the Okanagan Mountain Park fire in 2003 which destroyed more than 200 structures, we got money and staff.”
Reg Nolander of Silver Star Mountain Resort noted that the mountain has $400 million in assessed value and employs many people, but, “it’s a high threat” from wildfires. The resort has built a fire break and in working on mechanical tree removal.
Ian Peterson described five small land treatment areas on public land along Eastside Road that will be worked on with mechanical harvesting, ground and ladder fuel cleanup and hand treatments.
Warren Yablonski of BC Timber Sales describe how mechanized harvesting can reduce wildfire risks and increase timber sales. He stressed that multiple use of the forests is a cornerstone of their plans, making room for hiking, riding while leaving some of the timber standing instead of the previous practice of clear cutting.
Murray Wilson of Tolko noted that fires are nothing new, but 2017 and 2018 saw 2.57 million hectares burned. “It’s going to get worse, “he said, because of spruce beetle and lodge pole pine beetle devastation of forests. He noted that on Terrace Mountain young, healthy forests didn’t burn. Adding that Jasper National Park in partnership with Canfor clear cut firebreaks around the community, taking out 1,000 truck loads of logs, he asked, “If a park can do that, why can’t we do something similar outside the park?”
Vernon Deputy Fire Chief Scott Hemsted gave an update on the Fire Smart program. He said that in spite of the experience of Fort McMurray, which he described as “three days in a war zone” many people aren’t convinced that Fire Smart is necessary. “Our mandate is to protect private property, and to minimize the impact of fires on it.” They have established Community Champions in six areas of the city, and residents are doing wild fire assessments, understanding risks and making plans for the protection of home properties. He described some recent fires that spread from trees on properties to the house and fully engulfed it before the fire fighters could arrive. “Many people are reluctant to change their landscaping,” he said.