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Wildfire hazards close to home



Fire ecologist Robert Gray warned the board members of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District that there are big hazards lying on the nearby forest floors.

"There’s just a lot of fuel out there," he said in a presentation about the growing wildfire threat at the monthly SLRD board meeting on Monday.

"This hazard is surrounding these communities."

The hazards, which include dead trees lying on the forest floor, are building up for a variety of reasons.

In part, the region has been without a fire for a long time. Before 1900 fires would just burn and naturally clean out the forest floors. Around the Pemberton area there was a fire every 15 years.

The local forest is long overdue for a fire.

The Whistler to Lillooet area also raises concerns because the forest is in a region called the Coast-Interior Transition Zone.

"(The trees) look like they’re moist but they experience drought on a regular basis," said Gray.

The warm, south facing aspects are the real problem he added. That’s where the trees get really dry and stressed, which makes them more prone to insects and diseases.

One of the biggest insect problems is the mountain pine beetle which to date has taken out more than 11 million hectares of forested land throughout the province.

Gray said that number will double this year.

Now the beetle is killing very small, young trees.

The beetle infestation adds to the growing wildfire hazard about 15 to 20 years after the attack has happened. That’s when the dead trees have built up on the forest floor where they don’t decompose because it isn’t wet enough.

Another contributor to the wildfire problem is the hazards on private land, where landowners may not be aware of the dangers of leaving slash on the forest floor.

The area under the hydro right of way lines is one of the worst areas for built up slash.

The rash of development in this corridor has left a lot of slash of the forest floors.

Pemberton is doing a round of public education in the spring to let people know about the hazards. This was done in Emerald Estates last year but Whistler Fire Rescue Service did not see the kind of results they wanted to see with the awareness campaign.

Gray encouraged the regional district to really examine their wildfire policies and look at options for the future.

He added that Jasper is doing a lot of thinning and burning in its surrounding forest because of the fear of fire.

Gray said it would take a long time to get the forest floor cleared of serious hazards.

He estimates that it will take at least a generation or two to battle this and in the meantime B.C. will continue to have fires.

The best plan of attack is to protect homes and watersheds first and foremost.

"We can’t treat it all," said Gray.

The gravity of the wildfire situation hit home last year after one of the worst summers for wildfires, which ripped through the B.C. Interior.

It is estimated that those fires will have a $700 million price tag when all the accounting is done. The timber that was damaged was worth $5 billion.

And on the social cost was high too.

Three firefighters lost their lives in the battle, 335 homes and 10 businesses went up in flames and thousands were forced to flee their homes.

SLRD Chair Susan Gimse asked Gray how the regional district could help encourage landowners to address the problem.

Gray said there’s no money available but the key is to give people access to resources and provide incentives to get their land cleared.

"It’s not an easy one," he said.

The board directed staff to examine what is being done by its member municipalities with respect to the FireSmart Program and that all communities within the SLRD have access to that information.