Fire suppression efforts exhaust resources

Changing weather extremes may cause evolution of forest firefighting strategies

It’s been a long summer for the Kamloops Fire Zone staff.

The B.C. Wildlife Service firefighters and support administrative staff began in June dealing with Okanagan Lake flooding, switched quickly to forest fires and now face drought concerns as the summer winds down.

“It’s been a long, long season and frankly I’m exhausted,” said Rob Schweitzer, the Kamloops Fire Centre manager.

“At one point we had some 44,000 people evacuated from their homes across the province. It’s hard not to meet anyone not impacted by these fires everywhere you go.”

But he says the million dollar question remains unanswered—is this fire season the new normal or just a freak aberration.

“I hope it’s not the new normal or I may have chosen the wrong job,” laughed Schweitzer, who has been in his current position for just over a year.

“To my way of thinking, I think this summer reflects a new change and to rethink the idea to suppress forest fires at all costs may not be the most reasonable, cost-effective approach.”

He noted that besides B.C.’s forest fire escalation, a similar story is occurring regarding wildfires in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and California.

Schweitzer made the comments while speaking to the Okanagan Water Stewardship Council on Thursday.

He said the cost to fight B.C’s fires this summer sits at $473 million and is forecast to reach $680 million. As a comparison, he cited that in 2003, the year of the Okanagan Mountain Park, the forest fire suppression bill came in at $375 million.

Schweitzer said this year has produced record fires in size, led by the Elephant Hill blaze at 192,725 hectares covering territory in both the Kamloops and Cariboo fire centre regions, and it’s still only 50 per cent contained.

In the Okanagan, he said the Philpott Fire currently sits at 465 hectares and is 70 per cent contained, while the Finley Creek fire, between Summerland and Peachland, has burned 1,000 hectares and is 15 per cent contained.

He said the number and size of fires this year are simply staggering in comparison to past years, jumping the U.S.-Canada border in some cases and crossing fire zone boundaries which is unusual.

“It just speaks to the size of some of these fires,” he noted.

He expects the review of the fire season this fall and winter coupled with a the new NDP government in place could potentially produce some philosophic changes in how the province battles forest fires in the future.

“What the best solutions are we’re not sure of at this point, but I do feel the wildfire service is in a good position to become an all-hazard response agency and to move into the land management aspect on a greater level with forest fire prevention practices,” he said.

But those practices raise other issues such as providing the resources and funding to better manage the fuel buildup on the forest floor, the planting of commercially viable trees that are also more susceptible to fire, and preserving riparian zones for environment habitat protection that can feed forest fires.

“That was one of the issues with the Elephant Hill fire. It would run out of timber but come across these riparian zones and you could see it taking off again when it got into those tree stands,” he said.