Wildfire protection grants prove too costly for Greater Trail taxpayers

There is money for wildfire prevention, but the cost to attain it would be nearly $1.5 million to Kootenay Boundary taxpayers

Millions of dollars of provincial grant money has been turned down by the regional district for wildfire protection this year as the costs to taxpayers would be too high, says the board of director’s chair.

Larry Gray said there is money for wildfire prevention to reduce the amount of standing fuel in the forest surrounding most West Kootenay and Boundary communities, but the cost to attain it would be nearly $1.5 million to Regional District of Kootenay Boundary (RDKB) taxpayers.

It’s 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).

“Should we be taxing our residents, even for the 25 per cent amount, to pay for mitigation on Crown land which belongs to the province?” he said during a recent Fruitvale village council meeting. “In the past we turned down money we had actually been granted last year. The rationale for not going after the money was simple.”

The amount of forest fuel mitigation necessary overall for the RDKB would be $6.1 million, with the regional district being required to cough up its quarter share of around $1.5 million.

They fund it up to 90 per cent for the first $100,000, and then it is 75 per cent funded.

Those costs would be borne across the regional district, said Gray, and would require a significant increase in taxation. The RDKB would have to increase taxation through the existing protective services service to cover their costs.

Gray said the RDKB had requested a meeting with Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Steve Thomson on what has 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.

“Any further changes will have to be fair and equitable for all B.C. municipalities in the province,” the email read at the time.

The ministry acknowledged discussion between the Provincial Fuels Management Working Group (comprised of the Union of B.C. Municipalities, provincial Wildfire Management Branch and the First Nations Emergency Services Society) and regional district representatives in the Kootenays was still ongoing.

“They are aware of the problem and they told us they are looking at ways in which they want to address it,” said Gray.

Last year the change was made to free up money for operational treatments including thinning, spacing, pruning and the removal of woody debris from forest floors, the most costly aspect of wildfire prevention in interface areas.

At the same time, the funding for operational treatments increased from the previous 75-25 split between the province and local government to 90 per cent provincial and 10 per cent municipal for the first $100,000.

Cost-sharing over and above $100,000 remained at the previous 75:25 ratio to a maximum of $400,000.

In addition, the province increased its share of funding for fuel management demonstration projects to 75 per cent from 50 per cent. Demo projects are typically small-scale treatments aimed at increasing public awareness and testing equipment and techniques prior to embarking large-scale projects.

“It’s a really serious thing for us,” Gray said about the situation. “We all have a role to play in this. We are part of the whole regional district trying to come up with a collaborative solution.”

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.

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