An open letter to: The Honorable Todd Stone and The Honorable Peter Milobar
British Columbia Wildfires
I write to you both because the ridings of Kamloops-South Thompson, Kamloops-North Thompson and much of British Columbia are facing unprecedented re-occurrence of wildfire, year after year. Quotes below from the BC Government website bear this out (1):
“The 2018 wildfire season was unique in its impact to almost all regions of the province, and in its record-setting area burned.” “The summer of 2017 will be remembered as one of the worst wildfire seasons in British Columbia’s history.” “British Columbia endured a major wildfire season in 2015 that saw aggressive fire activity, an above-average number of wildfires and hectares burned, and significant impacts on people and communities throughout the province.” “The summer of 2014 was a uniquely challenging wildfire season in British Columbia. Large scale, landscape level wildfires contributed to the burning of almost 360,000 hectares of land – the third highest in our province’s history.” “Since April 1, 2021 (until today, July 25 2021) there have been 780 wildfires of note in BC.”
As I look out my window today, visibility is severely impaired and official air quality indexes indicate that the PM 2.5 concentration in Kamloops is currently 9 times above WHO (World Health Organization) exposure recommendation. Earlier today, the concentration was 13 times greater. On the same website, the Real Time Ranking of cities in Canada show 8 BC communities at a worse level than Kamloops (170), with Trail BC at a whopping (430) on the US AQI index. Outside of BC only Woodstock Ontario made the top ten list. And if you compare todays air quality to the 2020 average data from the worlds most polluted cities, you can easily see that at this moment BC communities handily beat them all.
The health effects of exposure to wildfire smoke have long been documented with effects ranging from burning eyes to chronic heart and lung disease, and death (2). Of course young healthy people rebound from smoke exposure much better than the elderly or those with compromised health. Nonetheless, exposure to smoke for month(s) at time virtually every year are likely causing significant health issues for residents of BC.
The government of BC website lists the area of timber lost to wildfire, and the amount is staggering. In just the last 3 years 2,575,433 Hectares have been destroyed and certainly this is an economic loss both to the province, its timber companies and employees. At the same time log availability in BC is going down, causing companies to look at other jurisdictions. “North American production growth is constrained by log availability in multiple regions, particularly British Columbia,” West Fraser Timber Co. said in an emailed statement. “We believe the U.S. south is the region with the most potential for production growth over the long term.” “Right now, log prices in B.C. are about triple what they are in U.S. South.” (3)
The recent pandemic – still not completely behind us – has shown that in order to get a crisis under control unprecedentedefforts are required. The Canadian Government took the step of contacting for almost 50 million excess dosages of the approved vaccines. 124 million more doses are available under contract from other companies completing phase 3 trials (4). The uncertainty of the pandemic resulted in the Government of Canada acting with ‘overkill’ to ensure the ultimate control of this crisis, and I and many Canadians are grateful that they worked to ensure our survival and health against a fearsome enemy.
Today in British Columbia we are facing a fearsome enemy – Wildfire. Year after year the situation repeats, and by all accounts climate change is causing some or all of this – confirmed by top scientists and meteorologists. While efforts to reign in climate change though the use of carbon taxes or other incentives may change the outcome over many years for the immediate future the citizens of BC will have the repeat of smoke laden communities and even the loss of communities such as Lytton. We all remember the losses in Kelowna and McLure – 310 homes were lost at a cost of more than 150 million dollars. Recently the community of Juniper in Kamloops was threatened and as luck had it wind played a factor in getting the fire under control. No one seems to think that the yearly wildfire situation will simply get better in the near future and it is likely the coming years will see greater economic and human consequences.
All of this is a tremendous financial burden to the citizens of BC. In the last 3 years wildfire has cost BC more than a billion dollars to fight (1) … you might say money gone up in smoke. This does not include the actual private property loss and increases in insurance premiums rippling through the system. And it comes at an inopportune time, the costs of the pandemic to citizens, the economy and provincial revenues are added to that burden.
This brings me to the point of this letter. I applaud the efforts of the BC Wildfire service and the men and women on the front lines of this crisis. Each day I keenly watch and listen to news stories on the success of firefighting, and for news of wildfire outbreaks. In these news stories I often hear BC officials using the phrase “We are doing all we can…” While it is true the Wildfire service and the men and women on the front lines are doing all they can.. it’s simply not true that British Columbia is doing all it can. I believe it is time that BC escalated its efforts to rapidly attack the outbreak of wildfire with the acquisition of provincially owned aircraft and other equipment dedicated to fighting BC wildfire. Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland own Canadair CL-415 firefighting aircraft and a total of 64 fly in Canada, another 100 around the world, yet we never see the distinctive yellow amphibious planes in the BC skies (6). Interestingly the CL-415 is manufactured by Viking Air, a British Columbia company (5). While there are more firefighting aircraft owned by BC companies such as C-130 Hercules and Boeing 737 these aircraft are generally working in other jurisdictions such as California. If British Columbia were to have its own aircraft ready to deploy I believe a better response to wildfire could be made, saving property, jobs, health and indeed life. I contend it is time that the British Columbia Government establishes its own Air Wing with serious equipment such as but not limited to the CL-415, and that these resources be fully owned by the Province ready to be deployed wherever and whenever they are required.
British Columbia needs to take unprecedented efforts in preparation for worsening wildfire conditions in years ahead. We should not repeat the pandemic errors when equipment such as masks, sanitizer and protective equipment were in short supply and drastic measures such as lockdowns were our last defence. What will be our last defence when wildfire threatens?