The Lesson of West Kelowna: Wildfire Damage Builds the Case for Controlled Burns 

This summer’s record-breaking fire season is a lesson we should heed. The tragic loss of dozens of family homes in West Kelowna and across B.C. are a reminder that our commerce-driven approach to forest management comes at a steep cost. 

At least 90 families are being forced to rebuild their homes and their lives. Could things have gone differently? The answer is yes. If the provincial government reverses its short-sighted decision to defund controlled burns, future fire seasons could look very different. 

Persistent fire suppression to protect merchantable timber leads to unsafe fuel loads in the forest, which result in wildfires that are more severe, more intense, and more difficult to control. That leads directly to the kind of destruction we are seeing in West Kelowna, where houses and possessions have been turned to ash and lives turned upside down. 

Decades of fire suppression have resulted in huge amounts of fuel littering the forest floor, crowding out biodiversity and putting people at risk. By putting out every fire on the landscape, we are creating forests that are bristling with fuel just waiting for a spark.  

Fire naturally occurs every five to 200 years in much of B.C. In the central Interior, many areas historically burn every five to 30 years. Under the right circumstances, fire is good. Fire is part of a natural process that rejuvenates grasslands and promotes biodiversity. 

Fire is an integral component of functioning and productive habitat for grizzly bears, moose, elk, mule deer, and sheep, and all those that share the landscape. Burns create food for wildlife by regenerating the soil and letting in sunlight, which creates ideal conditions for new plants and berries to grow. 

Using fire intentionally, under expert management, rejuvenates the land with little risk to people and property. Wouldn’t you prefer a few days of smoke in April to the hellscape of uncontrolled wildfires that have become a sad routine for British Columbians? 

Limiting industrial access to areas hit by fire helps reduce soil disturbance, invasive weeds, habitat fragmentation and loss, and other negative effects of roads on wildlife and habitat.  This approach reduces damage to soil, while leaving green trees and large trees to minimize erosion and to ensure the understory helps these areas quickly regenerate.  

In 2003, British Columbia suffered a season of catastrophic, uncontrollable wildfires and the pall of choking smoke lasting months. The provincial government commissioned former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon to investigate and produce the Firestorm 2003 Provincial Review. 

One of the key recommendations to come out of the Firestorm 2003 report was for communities to create wildfire protection plans to reduce risk in and around their communities. Once the plans were complete, they could apply for funding from the province. 

The risk reduction (fuel treatment) includes thinning timber, cutting underbrush and the lower limbs of trees, and removing flammable debris from the forest floor. The treatment is designed to keep fire on the ground, away from the upper reaches of the tree canopy, which helps leave larger trees intact in the event of a fire. 

Over the past 20 years, less than 10 per cent of fuel clearing in and around communities on more than 11,000 square kilometres identified by the province as in need of treatment has been completed, according to a recent Postmedia investigation. 

As a proportion of the provincial budget, funding for renewable resource management is just a fraction of its historical level, declining by 75 per cent between 1993 and today.  We cannot conserve our land, water, air, and wildlife on a shoestring budget.  

Prevention is always less costly than rebuilding after a catastrophe. With proper funding and the commitment of our government to controlled burns and fuel treatment, future fire seasons need not be the ruinous events that have marred the last six years. 

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