New provincial wildfire plan fails to douse concerns

Larry Grey of the RDKB feels the new wildfire program does not adequately address some funding concerns.

  • Dec. 12, 2012 5:00 a.m.

A new provincial cost sharing formula for reducing the threat of wildfires has not sparked the interest of the regional district.

Larry Gray, chair of the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary (RDKB) board of directors, said the new program does address some funding concerns, but it does not go far enough to deal with the major issue facing governments like the RDKB.

Gray said the formula contains no provision for wildfire mitigation on private property and managed forest lands.

“And many of our communities are surrounded, almost exclusively, by privately held lands,” he said.

The new cost-sharing formula for operational fuel reduction treatments means the province will pay 90 per cent of the project cost, with an annual cap of $400,000 for municipalities and an annual cap of $600,000 for regional districts.

The remaining 10 per cent of costs can be an in-kind contribution (e.g. staff time) or a cash payment from the municipality or regional district making the application.

Previously, the initiative provided 90 per cent of the project funding up to $100,000 and 75 per cent of the remaining cost, up to a maximum of $400,000 per year.

Gray was also adamant the regional district taxpayers should not have to pay any of the 10 per cent of the costs for mitigation on Crown land.

“We have some concern about that, that the property really belongs to the government,” he said. “Should the taxpayers be paying money to do the mitigation on Crown lands when they are really owned by the provincial government?”

Fuel management is the ongoing process of mitigating the risk of wildfire damage by reducing the amount of waste wood, tree needles, brush and other flammable material that could “fuel” a grassland fire or forest fire.

The change through the Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative will be effective Jan. 1, 2013.

Operational fuel reduction treatments may include: removing dead trees; increasing the spacing between live trees; trimming back low-hanging tree branches; and removing or burning off vegetation and wood debris that could potentially fuel a wildfire.

In October Gray said the money needed from RDKB taxpayers for wildfire prevention to reduce the amount of standing fuel in the forest surrounding most West Kootenay and Boundary communities would be nearly $1.5 million. The amount of forest fuel mitigation necessary overall for the RDKB would be $6.1 million.

It was too steep of a price to be borne by a thin and already taxed tax base, Gray said. In June, 2011, the cost sharing formula, previously funded entirely by the province’s Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative, but administered by UBCM, was changed to require municipalities to contribute 25 per cent of the cost fuel management planning (over $100,000).

Gray said the RDKB held a meeting with Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Steve Thomson one month ago on what had become a huge problem and an insurmountable cost for the district for forest fire mitigation.

With wildfire potential threatening every corner of the Kootenays, they asked the minister and his staff to come up with some solutions to the funding dilemma for a region that will not be participating in the province’s fuel management programs, Gray said.

Although it was not a positive reception from the ministry it wasn’t an outright refusal to help, Gray said.

In an email in response to questions in June, ministry officials admitted changes introduced over one year ago have created some challenges—especially for some regional districts—and have agreed to continue to sit down with the affected parties to see if anything can be done to address concerns.

“We know there is more work going on here and that those issues will be addressed,” said Gray.

Based on advice from the Filmon Report, the Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative was started in 2004 with $37 million in from the federal and provincial governments. In April 2011, the province provided an additional $25 million.