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Unusually warm winter causing concern about upcoming wildfire season

KELOWNA (NEWS1130) – Some cities in BC are worried about what’s to come this wildfire season given the dry and unusually warm winter we’ve had. A lack of funding for extra prep work is causing concern.

Communities have been using government grants to clear out dry brush near homes to stop it from acting as a ladder and catching tree tops on fire. The Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative was set up in the wake of the devastating wildfires in the Kelowna area. It was recommended in a report into the disaster put together by former politician Gary Filmon. The fund has been administered by the Union of BC Municipalities. The NDP says there is no money left for any more grants this year.

West Kelowna mayor Doug Findlater feels the BC government does a good job of helping fight fires when they do happen, but preventative fuel management has to be part of the plan. He says West Kelowna council has drafted a resolution for this year’s UBCM convention to call for change.

“We do feel that we need to look ahead as Gary Filmon did in the Filmon report of 2005 following the North Thompson and Kelowna fires where there was a recommendation for some fairly vast tracts of interface forest areas to receive that kind of treatment and only a fraction of it’s been done.” He adds his city is worried, but the risk could decrease if we have a wet spring.

In the West Kootenay, Castlegar Mayor Lawrence Chernoff also wants to see the fuel management work continue. Chernoff says it’s unlikely any more prevention work can happen without that money or a tax increase. “We try to do it if the funds are available but we have to take a really close look at our interface forests and see if there is that huge hazard and we may just have to do that on our own.”

Whistler’s Fire Chief has also been informed that their ongoing fuel management work won’t receive provincial funding this year. Sheila Kirkwood says that funding is key for the work they do to prepare. “We’re looking at, on the South Coast, the snowpack is at 15 per cent of normal. That indicates that we are potentially headed into a very active fire season.”

The province has set aside $63-million for wildfire management this year, the same as last year. The BC government routinely spends more than that, for example $293-million was spent fighting fires last year.

NDP Forests, Land and Natural Resource critic Harry Bains says the Liberals chronically underfund wildfire management in order to present a balanced budget. “There are not spending the money that they should be. Their own report said they should be spending more in prevention. They don’t have enough money allocated to fight fires in the event that we do have fires.”

The provincial government says there is currently $550,000 left in the Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative and it has diverted $62-million to communities for wildfire prevention. The Forests, Land and Natural Resource Minister Steve Thomson says he could not be available to answer our questions by phone. He also did not directly address whether or not the BC government would be adding to the initiative this year. His email statement calls on municipalities to adopt “FireSmart” bylaws to push homeowners to make sure their property is safe.