Big bill pending for local forest fire fuel cleanup

To remove all the forest fire fuels on the Westside would require millions of dollars, but a small chunk of funding is allowing crews to get started on some of the problem areas.

  • Jan. 28, 2011 12:00 p.m.

To remove all the forest fire fuels on the Westside would require millions of dollars, but a small chunk of funding is allowing crews to get started on some of the problem areas.

The first areas to be treated include Black Canyon Park, Rock Ridge Park, Casa Palmero Park, Falkner Creek Park, Shannon Highlands Park and Horizon Park.

West Kelowna operations supervisor Stacey Harding said the district will work until grant funding runs out, but they are also seeing “tremendous” work being done by their neighbours.

“Westbank First Nation is conducting similar work in its community forest and interface areas, and the Regional District of Central Okanagan has done excellent work in Glen Canyon Regional Park,” said Harding.

“We are all looking at different ways to accomplish our common goals of reducing wildfire risk.”

A wildfire threat analysis conducted by Valhalla Environmental Consulting outlined areas at highest risk.

Forester John Davies said the firm identified 65 priority areas for fuel management work across the Westside.

Fuel reduction work is done through selective harvesting. Davies said the work reduces the density of stands, increases the height to the crown of trees by removing ladder fuels, and also removes the surface fuels that result from treatment.

He noted removing some of the trees improves the health of other trees, providing them with better access to natural resources.

“We’re not taking all the trees, we have to respect the values that the public has on the landscape.”

Crews take stands that are very dense in the bottom layer and reduce the understory, but the forest is not taken back to as sparse as it would have historically been.

Davies said contractors tend to leave at least 10 stems per hectare, as well as some of the intermediate trees.

“The idea is that those trees we’re leaving in the understory, the intermediates… they’re the recruits for the future.”

The Union of B.C. Municipalities has provided approximately $70,000 to create prescriptions for fuel management work in different areas, and $209,000 to actually do the work.

Eight initial areas to be treated are on Crown land and in the West Kelowna. Davies said West Kelowna workers would not be treating forests on private lands, or those of the Regional District of Central Okanagan or Westbank First Nation.

Contractors are expected to begin work the week of Feb. 14, and be finished around the end of March.

Davies said prescriptions for the work to be done have been set down for 20 to 25 hectares of land. Because of the small geographic area, West Kelowna does not benefit from economies of scale. Performing the work on all 65 priority areas would cost from $3 to $4 million, not including fuel breaks recommended around the community.

In response to questions on fire risk, Davies noted that the more roads an area has, the more potential for human-caused ignition of fires.

Moving outward from the district core, there are fewer vehicles and less accidental ignitions.

He added the district of West Kelowna is fairly concentrated. Valhalla’s threat assessment looked also at riparian areas at risk, old-growth areas, and distance from roads and water sources.

“Anywhere you are close to the urban core, you have excellent suppression capabilities,” he said.

The farther away from the core a fire is, the more constraints there are in fighting the blaze, including steepness of the terrain.

More than half of the 65 priority areas identified for fuel management on the Westside are on private land.

West Kelowna fire chief Wayne Schnitzler said people can do a lot of the cleanup work themselves.

He noted the numbers of fuel reduction permits have been up this year for people doing their own work in their yards.

“People are getting into the mode of cleaning their own properties,” said Schnitzler.

Mayor Doug Findlater noted fuel management work was done recently by CORD in Glen Canyon Regional Park.

He noted the crew could not do private properties as well, which are left in a state that is somewhat dangerous.

Findlater pointed out some of the property owners could have made a private deal with the crew to have their own properties cleared. While all the equipment was down there, the private lands could have been cleared out at the same level of performance.

Schnitzler later noted that in cases of private lands in a condition that create fire hazards for nearby residences, he said all the fire department can do is make recommendations on how the land could be improved.

He pointed out every resident is concerned about everybody else’s trees, and worry when there is a time of severe hazard.

“The other times of the year, people love their trees.”

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