Higher fines for people getting in the way of wildfire suppression efforts

Legislative amendments as part of the Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Statutes Amendment Act aimed at helping firefighters.

Every summer complaints filter through the Okanagan of gawkers getting in the way of firefighters battling back flames and campers failing to comply with  fire bans while the forest is tinder dry.

These behaviours aren’t OK, we continually are told from officials, but the story remains the same from summer to summer.

Now the province is trying to change the narrative with proposed legislative amendments as part of the Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Statutes Amendment Act (Bill 12).

Among other things, changes will result in significantly increased ticket fines for 19 different violations under the Wildfire Act and for seven different violations under Wildfire Regulation, meaning B.C. now has some of the highest wildfire-related violation ticket fines in the country.

For example, the fine for failing to comply with a fire restriction  under the Wildfire Act is increasing from $345 to $1,150, a 333.33 per cent increase over the old fine for that offence.

The bill also clarifies what is considered to be “interference,” in terms of actions that could hinder firefighters.

Of particular note, interference does not have to be intentional to constitute contravention of the wildfire act, so drones and lookie-loo drivers may want to take heed.

The latter offenders are usually the bane of B.C. wildfire crews, but city firefighters have had some experience with them as well.

“Last summer we had a fire on top of Knox Mountain, and it’s a skinny windy road up there,” said Lou Wilde, of the Kelowna Fire Department.

“And there was a parade of vehicles going up there to have a look at it.”

The time it took to get to the blaze was lengthy and the drive itself ended up being treacherous as fire trucks had to navigate around a traffic jam on what’s little more than a forest road.

“Eventually we had RCMP stop people at the bottom of the hill, there was a huge bottle neck,” said Wilde. “It’s naïveté—people don’t really realize the impact it will have. They’re not intentionally trying to hinder operations.”

Another way the public creates a hindrance is getting in the way of BC Wildfire water bombers.

“There are two problems there. There are boaters who just want the birdseye view of wildfire on hillside get in the way of water bombers,” said Wilde, explaining police end up telling them to get out of the way.

“The other was the drones. Last summer B.C. Forest Service, on the West Kelowna side, had to cease aerial operations because somebody was out there with a drone. It would be catastrophic if one of those bombers hit a drone and was pulled down.”

Education, Wilde said, should go a long way to dealing with these issues.

And for those who don’t learn as easily, he said, the increased fines will make up the difference.

“Obviously if you are going to get a fine that is $345 and now it’s $1,150, maybe more people will take note of that, it carries more weight and shows the province is serious about this and it’s something we need the public to comply with,” he said.

Across the lake, West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund echoed much of what Wilde said.

“I think it’s great that the province is paying attention, and these fines draw attention to what a serious matter it is,” said Brolund.

“But, my first thought is that the public in our region is generally well educated and cooperative when it comes to us to dealing with wildfires.”

Particularly notable, he said, is the lack of resistance the public greets firefighters with when they’re asked to evacuate.

That said, Brolund did say he hopes the province’s announcement about increased penalties does  serve as a reminder to the public to how serious these situations can be in the summer.

On average, 30 to 40 per cent of wildfires in British Columbia are human-caused.

The 2015 fire season was one of the busiest and most expensive in  recent years, with over 283,400 hectares burned and over $278 million spent on wildfire management.

To report a wildfire, call 1 800 663-5555 toll-free or *5555 on a cellphone.

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