As the fires continue to burn across B.C. and folks in far away places like USA are complaining about the excessive smoke, it's time to consider what the happened this summer to make wildfire protection go up in flames. As of August 8, 2017, "Wildfires are continuing to tear through British Columbia one month after the provincial government declared a state of emergency. Kevin Skrepnek of the B.C. Wildfire Service said the province has seen 904 fires since April 1 and most of the major blazes wreaking havoc are ones that prompted the state of emergency declaration July 7," source, Times Colonist (http://www.timescolonist.com/news/b-c-wildfires-news-roundup-air-quality-interactive-map-fire-danger-1.1992958)
The discussion began a few years ago about expecting horrific fires since the mountain pine beetle infestation killed vast tracts of lodgepole pine in B.C. thus an absolute disaster of combustible biomass would be sitting on the forest floor. Furthermore, forestry experts in B.C. said these fires were not going to be normal forest fire events because they will burn so much hotter.
Experts predicted these fires would be the cause of worse damage whereas forests recover within a few years after 'normal' fires and trees grow back. In fact, some species of trees are designed to grow back because of fire, but this time, over heated fires are destroying the seed that would normally sprout. An entire biomass is disappearing where a super hot fire has occurred, thus the forests are being desertified, turned into dead zones of no growth.
This sounds alarming due to the extraordinary hot fires in the MPB destroyed biomass. It's a disaster stacked on top of a disaster. Some communities spent a long time getting ready for this practically inevitable occurrance. Brent Langlois works in forest fuel management department at First Nations Emergency Services Society (FNESSS). He was aware a few years ago that over 100 First Nations communities in British Columbia were embedded within Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB) infested landscapes.
"The challenge to decrease the effects of catastrophic wildfires is enormous. Beyond these MPB communities are an additional 100-plus communities that are also at risk due to dramatic increases in forest fuel loading, although not originally identified as MPB impacted."
Langlois was tasked with a mission to assist First Nations in developing and sustaining safer and healthier communities, working within the Forest Fuel Management Department of FNESS to ensure assistance was available with Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPP) for all First Nations communities.(https://www.forestsandrangelands.gov/communities/cwpp.shtml)
They had two Registered Professional Foresters (RPFs) for monitoring and quality control of plans, prescriptions, and projects. This personnel provided a forum for the technology transfer to the professional forester community. FNESS had three technical staff to provide advice, education, and facilitation services to First Nations communities. Regular meetings with clients were built into the program performance indicators and into their personal performance plans.
The program was designed to ensure two-way communications with FNESS client communities who gave them frank and regular feedback on service delivery. The preparation for forest fire threats to communities began with identifying a forest professional to work on behalf of the First Nation, through to developing prescriptions and completing treatments on the ground, which as a best practice took nine months to one year to complete.
The costs to complete each stage were high and there were major concerns that funds were inadequate to allow all the affected Indigenous communities to complete and then maintain their treatments. The potential for devastating wildfires is always present as can be easily remembered from previous seasons. In any given year several communities and their numerous hamlet-sized reserve properties are directly impacted with evacuation alerts and/or orders around the province, and many others are impacted with smoke and health concerns.
FNESS officials recognized an urgent need to engage in the CWPP process, said Langlois. They assisted, "with building essential work relationships with other integral agencies to complete the work; Ministry of Forests and Range and Union of BC Municipalities for land immediately surrounding reserves and with INAC and NRCAN (currently) for work on reserves. These relationships are positive and essential to ensure work progresses, which is why we assist communities to build as well."
FNESS becomes extremely busy in the middle of a forest fire crisis such as is underway in 2017, and the programs they administer are part of a planning program in dozens of communities every year. There is a spike in activity during the worst fire seasons that consumes funds and manpower leading to a substantial decrease in available funds expected for future disaster preventation measures.
Recruiting and retaining qualified First Nation staff to lead the work, and document and share best practices also bear costs. "Urgently, the task remains to ensure funding levels are enhanced for the great community work and momentum to remain and work to continue."
First Nations Forestry Council (FNFC) was organized from a specific mandate, according to Keith Atkinson, Chief Executive Officer, "The Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB) is the main reason why the FNFC was formed." Atkinson, an RPF with a couple of decades working in B.C. forests, believes First Nation communities were fighting for their lives in the face of the MPB. "We cannot abandon our communities." On the other hand, the MPB offered a huge potential for biomass development.
Atkinson said, "The FNFC began out of the MPB crisis. Millions of dollars were initially committed and the First Nations were included in the $100 million a year funding scheme, with $20 million a year earmarked for First Nations." Twenty percent of the federal commitment was designated to First Nation communities.
When the federal government first transferred $100 million to the province, "First Nations saw $8.4 million." Forestry is a multi-billion dollar industry in Canada. Rather than meeting the commitment, "In four years we saw $20 million for First Nations to do assessments and identify the impact of the MPB, and list the First Nation priorities to deal with it."
Atkinson noted back in 2011 that 50 percent of the 200 Indigenous communities in B.C. were directly affected by the MPB blight, yet the federal government changed course in the middle of the funding program and began diverting funding to national organizations for distribution through Natural Resources Canada and Western Diversification.
"Our agreement with the province of B.C. broke down. We continued to try and monitor the funding situation through working groups, to share and coordinate what money we received. The dollars had started to flow and then it changed." It's about the money because, "The number one issue is forest fuel management," which, Atkinson noted, "is fuel created by the MPB. Then comes the risk of forest fires." He urged that they make an urgent effort to mitigate against forest fire hazards. "These fires are increasing in severity and so is the incidence of interface fires," where cities like Kelowna and towns like Lillooet were faced with devastating infernos, and today, in 2017, whole communities are being swallowed by flames.
As a matter of fact, Indigenous communities in the form of Indian Reservations are always in peril in spring, summer and fall these days. "We have a lot of work to do on reserves because the biomass fuel is constantly interfacing with these communities. The cost of treatment to reduce fire risk increases every year," and Atkinson estimates it is in the hundreds of millions per year. "We've submitted funding proposals over and over and they always get culled down."
He says the First Nations required $20 million a year in B.C. to reduce the threat to communities but instead of funding, FNFC was left to battle its way into funding schemes that would reduce the threat to communities. They were reduced to $2 million a year and even though rural Indigenous people were willing to do the work the money wasn't there.
It was a difficult situation for an organization that was established for the purpose of fighting a pestilence that threatens the safety and existence of Canada's Indigenous people. Atkinson said the forest industry, "is facing a new kind of forestry. Restoration is the goal and we want communities to be running their own programs. It includes cultural and social sustainability of these communities. We also need to participate in the research of climate change."
He believes the communities are structured for biomass fuel management and proper funding would enable economic development. The FNFC worked diligently from the outset to design a strategy. The federal government of that day ended up diverting money into existing federal departments effectively bypassing First Nations. Furthermore the money caused competition between First Nations for dwindling funds. This unexpected diversion shattered the FNFC organization. "Most people recognize First Nation issues today," says Atkinson, "and they know a few things about our plight."
In spite of the problems of recent history, it is a fact that Indigenous people have a a long-standing role that is increasing in the business of forest fire fighting, and companies like DRAM Ventures both consult and train First Nations in the central interior, especially the heart of the Secwepmec Nation. Doug Richardson is the principle owner of DRAM Ventures.
"I met Keith Atkinson at a conference in Neskonlith, and I was made aware of the FNFC's growing concerns about fire safety training for their members. I do a variety of training and education initiatives." Richardson has trained First Nations in the B.C. interior all the way from Prince George to the U.S. border. He worked closely with First Nations on evacuation procedures involved with the increasing threat of interface fires (that threaten to immolate whole communities that may be isolated, even have limited chance for escape).
He works in liaison with the B.C. provincial forest services and First Nations on designing CWPPs. "There is millions of dollars designated for First Nations to help plan safe communities and build resistance to interface fires," says Richardson. "The reserves require the training to assist them in preserving the communities and the funding applies to off-reserve plans for fire resistance, because the fires usually start a long way from these communities."
DRAM Ventures is busy delivering fire safety training in B.C. at present, and in other provinces where the Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB) broke through the Rocky Mountain barrier. "Alberta has forests in peril and Saskatchewan too. The western provinces are under a direct threat from the ravages of the MPB," so it's not B.C.'s problem alone," but B.C. is definitely having the most trouble managing the aftermath of a runaway MPB infestation.