Opinion Column

The Duel

B.C. burns from scorched earth policies

By Garth Mullins, The Duel

A fire located near Ashcroft and Cache Creek, B.C. grew from about 700 hectares to just under 4,000 hectares in a span of about five hours on Friday, July 7, 2017. Some 1,000 Cache Creek residents have since been evacuated from their homes as of Saturday morning, July 8, 2017, with more than two dozen trailer homes destroyed already. (Raven Nyman for Postmedia News)

A fire located near Ashcroft and Cache Creek, B.C. grew from about 700 hectares to just under 4,000 hectares in a span of about five hours on Friday, July 7, 2017. Some 1,000 Cache Creek residents have since been evacuated from their homes as of Saturday morning, July 8, 2017, with more than two dozen trailer homes destroyed already. (Raven Nyman for Postmedia News)

Topics

This week's question: Are the B.C. wildfires getting worse from climate change?

A column of vehicles navigates the deep red midday twilight. Videos show flames shooting up beside the highway – trees igniting on either side. At one point fires were starting faster than officials could count. Many wonder: is this the new normal?

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs has no doubt. “These are not one off events.” Already vulnerable, First Nations are hit particularly hard. “When we lose our housing stock and community infrastructure, the chances of having that rebuilt are non-existent. There’s already a huge backlog.”

It’s difficult to pin any one fire on climate change. But the trend is clear. Wildfires are getting, bigger, hotter, faster, more frequent and harder to fight. Fire seasons are longer. Droughts are more common. There’s less snow and it melts faster.

Megafires – like 2016’s half-million hectare Fort McMurray fire – are increasing exponentially across the west. Contract forest firefighter Jason Flis has fought megafires: “All you can do is contain the perimeter and let it burn itself out.”

There’ve always been fires. My mom Doreen grew up in a logging camp and remembers, “Sayward valley full of smoke. Everyone would help put (the fires) out. Dad would set a fire watch with uncle Dutch on lookout. But it seems worse now.”

Read Brent Stafford's column here.

Winters aren’t cold enough anymore to kill off pine beetles, leaving 787.8 million cubic metres of beetle-killed pine tinder-dry. “It’s all red and dead up here– so it catches really quickly,” said Flis.

Grand Chief Phillip sees government as part of the problem, “We’ve seen 16 years of deregulation and turned the responsibility over to the forest companies. Programs to eradicate the dead wood were cut back.”

Phillip recalls “we used to go out and burn off all the built up materials as a fire safety measure.” This indigenous practice went on for millennia until authorities prohibited it. 

Our current conflagration was fueled by a century of bad policy in forestry, suburban sprawl, and carbon-intensive resource development. B.C.’s incoming government has got to fund climate adaptation, fix building codes, implement those indigenous fire safety techniques and leap into the post-carbon economy. 

As evacuation orders empty community after community, tens of thousands are on the move – B.C.’s climate refugees. But we’re helping each other: fighting fires, making food, hauling livestock, opening our homes and donating cash.

Our solidarity will be the greatest mitigation through the rest of this fire season – and in the scorching years to come.

Garth Mullins is a broadcaster, activist, writer, musician and trade unionist. He’s at www.garthmullins.com or @garthmullins