On February 12th, Jim Cooperman presented this release and briefing note on behalf of residents who endured the worst disaster to ever hit the Shuswap to Premier Eby, cabinet ministers, government agencies and the media in Victoria:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
BC must change how wildfires are fought or many more homes will burn again this summer
VICTORIA, BC — Residents from last year’s fire-ravaged Shuswap and Okanagan regions today urge Premier Eby to reform B.C.’s wildfire response now to prevent more devastation.
“No rural community should have to experience the massive damage and trauma that our North Shuswap endured last summer after the BC Wildfire Service allowed two wildfires to expand and then did an aerial ignition prior to a windstorm. This fire quickly spread, creating a firestorm that destroyed 176 homes and structures,” said Jim Cooperman, spokesperson for North Shuswap Defence. “Our community demands a full investigation into this disaster and the failed backburn that caused it,” he added.
Last year’s wildfires burned over 2.8 million hectares in B.C., more than double the hectares in the previous extreme year. These fires resulted in over $720-million of insurance claims in West Kelowna and the Shuswap alone, the largest loss in B.C.’s history, by far. While climate change makes forests more fire prone, the huge extent of these disasters is made worse by BC Wildfire Service mismanagement.
Retired professional forester and wildfire specialist Bruce Morrow, agrees: “The present wildfire fighting model has proven itself totally inadequate because it increases wildfire costs and area burned, slows wildfire suppression responses and erodes the ability of B.C. to fight its own wildfires.”
Cooperman learned much from the crisis his community faced last year; “We are alarmed that the new emergency legislation that poses fines of up to $100,000 and up to one year in jail for those residents that remain behind to protect their homes and properties,” North Shuswap rancher and logger, Karl Bischoff feels similarly: “Last summer, if it was not for those of us who stayed to fight spot fires and build fire guards when there were no BC Wildfire Service personnel around, many more homes would have been destroyed.”
Many contractors, foresters and former BC Wildfire Service staff are sharply critical of the current system. Yet, most avoid making public statements because for fear of being blacklisted by the BC Wildfire Service, which resists accountability. A major problem that must be fixed is that when local contractors offer to put out fires when they are extinguishable, BC Wildfire Service threatens them with court action if they do. It is as if the BC Wildfire senior bureaucrats prefer that wildfires grow large enough so that vast sums of money can be spent for ineffective control efforts.
After last year’s disaster, the North Shuswap community enlisted the help of wildfire experts to develop recommendations for improving wildfire response. The key recommendation is to improve the Initial Attack System so that wildfires are extinguished quickly, when they are small.
Former Northwestern Ontario Forestry Director Allan Willcocks, who now lives in West Kelowna, observed how the McDougall Creek wildfire began and grew quickly because of the delayed response.
“On that hot August day in West Kelowna, the BC Wildfire Service was incapable of protecting our city because they did not have the equipment or resources to do the job,” explained Willcocks. “What was needed for that fire and others is an effective rapid attack that includes water bombers to thoroughly douse the blaze followed by an initial attack crew to fully extinguish it,” Willcocks added.
Cooperman summarized the campaign, “The B.C. Wildfire Service must change how it fights fires or more communities will be devastated this year and for years to come. Today we are presenting a petition signed by people who were impacted by wildfires that demands the government act quickly ahead of what is predicted to be another dangerous hot, dry summer.”
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Jim Cooperman, firstname.lastname@example.org
North Shuswap residents demand the following urgent action:
- Increased Rapid Attack Response Now. Ensure fires are actioned on day one with water bombers, followed up by initial attack crews.
- All hands on deck! Sign up every contractor and forestry professional to be part of the firefighting team so fires can be put out early. Allow for rural residents to help protect their properties if wildfires approach.
- Restore the Fire Warden system to ensure communities have local experts preventing and fighting local fires.
- Fully investigate the backburns that devastated the North Shuswap and Gun Lake communities to ensure mistakes like these never happen again.
From: North Shuswap Defence Committee
To: Premier Eby and Cabinet Ministers
Date: February 15, 2024
Subject: Call to Action: Recommendations for Reform of the BC Wildfire Service
ISSUE: Mismanagement, poor decision-making and outdated approaches by the BC Wildfire Service (“BCWS”) during the 2023 fire season contributed to destruction of hundreds of homes and billions of dollars of economic losses and insurance claims.
Action is needed by the Premier and Cabinet Ministers to reform the BCWS and fire response in BC prior to this summer’s fire season. This Briefing Note identifies the problems and sets out recommendations for reform.
DISCUSSION: Dangers facing our forests, communities and economy
British Columbia’s forests are changing and are under severe stress due to the rapidly changing climate. These circumstances exponentially increase the likelihood of devastating forest fires threatening B.C.’s communities, forests and economic future. Experts predict that severe forest fires akin to those experienced in 2023 will occur almost every year for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, the agency entrusted with protecting the province — the BCWS — has not adapted to the dramatic changes in our forests. It clings to fire-fighting models that may have worked in the past but are no longer suitable. Meanwhile, wildfire agencies in other provinces have successfully adapted with alternative fire-fighting methods, consistent with recommendations in reviews by Filmon (2003) and Abbott and Chapman (2018).
Professional and community proponents for change have encountered resistance and inertia from the BCWS — and now appeal to the Premier and Cabinet Ministers for action to adopt a new wildfire response system to safeguard our forests, communities, and economy.
Identifying the problem: Risks in our forests and BCWS inertia
Wildfires are a natural component of our forest ecosystems. These natural fires have been minimized to optimize the economic value of standing timber, leading to denser and older stands at high fire risk. Insects have also destroyed vast tracts of forests while leaving dead and dying flammable trees. In the Interior, urban development has encroached up the hillsides into fuel-laden forests. With climate change added to this mix, along with corresponding higher temperatures, severe drought, and increased lightning and windstorms, our forests have reached a tipping point.
Within the BCWS, there is no evidence of a coherent business plan to effectively manage these risks; $200-million was budgeted in 2023, while fire suppression expenditures exceeded $700-million. The costs and size of wildfires have increased significantly, largely due to the limited effectiveness of BCWS’s Initial Attack Program to identify fires quickly and aggressively extinguish them. Many fires in 2023 were not identified or actioned at an early stage, because BCWS has no aerial detection aircraft. It lacks significant relationships with local communities and the forest industry and relies on fire-fighters from other provinces and countries, at a huge expense with long delays. This mismanagement has increased wildfire sizes, costs, and threats to forest communities. BCWS also lacks adequate structural protection teams, while insisting on evacuating people who are protecting their largely uninsured homes and ranches. The current approach contributed to massive fires and billions of dollars of losses in 2023, as well as in previous years.
Recommendation #1: Implement an effective and localized Initial Attack System
The first priority for action is to develop an improved and effective Initial Attack System. Early detection and strong response can stop 96% of fires. This includes aerial detection aircraft and/or drones flying in high and extreme fire conditions, followed by immediate deployment of retardant aircraft and water bombers. B.C. needs additional water and/or retardant bombers for initial attack such as the CL-515 built by Victoria-based Viking Air. The BCWS needs to re-orient their entire staff towards initial attack with the crew sizes needed to extinguish the fires. Any wildfires that escape initial attack need a more aggressive response at the early stages.
Recommendation #2: Collaborate with local contractors, licensees and rural landowners
Utilize local resources and people, who have the skills, experience and local knowledge required to fight fires effectively, as all other provinces do. Engage and cross-train with heavy equipment operators, contractors and industry in all levels of wildfire suppression to immediately double our capacity to manage and fight wildfires. Re-establish the Wildfire Specialist designation so local professionals can be dispatched quickly to respond to wildfire suppression needs in their area. Recruit and train forest industry staff to work within the Incident Command System. Rather than enforce counter-productive evacuation orders, authorize and work with those rural residents who have firefighting skills, experience and capacity, plus the motivation to protect their homes and properties.
Recommendation #3: Complete an independent review of planned burns
Planned ignitions to control wildfire spread can be an effective tool in wildfire suppression in BC. However, too often unaccountable BCWS personnel with no local experience or knowledge have ignited large areas that cannot be controlled. A comprehensive independent review is needed of controlled burns that includes the practices, training, and experience of the people responsible for the ignitions. This should include an investigation of the planned ignitions that have been implicated in damage to infrastructure, including the catastrophic prescribed burn for the East Adams Lake fire in August 2023 that resulted in the destruction of 176 homes and structures.
Recommendation #4: Re-establish the Fire Warden system
Restore and expand the Fire Warden system to improve local suppression knowledge, community-based communications, wildfire detection and assessment, and co-ordination of evacuations and community suppression. Coordinate the system with local volunteer fire departments.
What is at stake if nothing is done?
Repeats of the catastrophic wildfires of 2023 will contribute to the collapse of BC’s Forest industry, further impact forest ecosystems, damage the tourism and wine industries, devastate more forest communities, and add yet more carbon to the atmosphere. The smoke will also continue to negatively impact the health of all British Columbians. Home-insurance coverage may become unavailable in wide swaths of the Interior, affecting hundreds of thousands of B.C. residents.
What is the next step? British Columbia must vastly improve its wildfire response system. Both government and independent experts should work together to develop a new plan for all components of wildfire management including planning, prevention, detection, initial attack, large fire management, better use of heavy equipment, improved structural protection and community involvement.