Funding to help local governments reduce the risk of wildfire in the forests that surround their communities is running out.
Since 2001 the province put $61 million into the Wildfire Protection Program—$1.8 million of which made its way to the Central Okanagan— but there are no plans to replenish funds in the years ahead.
“There’s currently $5.5 million of projects being carried out this year and next, and we recently put an additional $500,000 into the program,” said MLA Steve Thomson, who’s also the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources.
“But it’s true that the program funding has been completed. The challenge we have is the fiscal environment.”
Fewer opportunities to fund clearing the fuel load in forests close to communities is an issue that has led to some concerns on the municipal level and is expected to be a significant talking point during the Union of BC Municipalities meeting later this year.
From Thomson’s point of view, the conversation ahead will deal largely with sharing the responsibility for fire mitigation efforts.
“Local governments have a role to play and home owners can fire smart their property,” he said, adding that a “collective approach” will be sought.
Also, Thomson pointed out that there are other ways his ministry is reducing the risk of wildfire in interface areas—250 programs, to be exact.
“Our wildfire management branch routinely undertake fuel reduction in high risk areas,” he said, adding that at the moment their attention is focused on battling blazes.
“We recognize the importance of doing this work and a significant investment has been made.”
Looking ahead, however, there will be changes.
Mayor Doug Findlater is open to that idea.
In his city, all the high risk fire areas eligible for funding, such as parks and public lands, have already had significant work done.
But the program as its currently set out is too restrictive.
“We had a resolution in the last couple of years that goes to more of the heart of the matter,” he said.
“Basically it’s impossible to enforce and require mitigation on private lands—especially when someone owns a lot of land and they won’t clean it up.”
Municipal bylaws are not enforceable in a situation like that, because it creates massive liability.
“So we would like more money and a change in the focus and criteria for the program, so private lands and vast tracks of public lands can be done..”
That said, Findlater pointed out that there may not be much to do in areas like Smith Creek, where a raging fire put West Kelowna neighbourhoods at risk last week.
When you look at the side of the mountain there, I don’t know if you could deal with mitigation at that level,” he said. “Unless you had a controlled burn, but that’s very controversial.”