Funding caps leave BC’s forests full of fuel
BC government will fund a maximum of 44 hectares of fuel treatments each year in rural parts of the Fraser Valley, where more than 5,000 hectares of forest have an ‘extreme’ long-term risk of fire.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect Mission’s plans to increase fuel treatment work, and the source of funding for its fuel treatment plans (via the Community Wildfire Protection Plan program).
A year after the worst fire season in BC’s history, little has been done to reduce the fuel loads in forests in the Fraser Valley and lower Fraser Canyon.
That’s in part because of last November’s devastating floods, but also because of caps that limit how much funding local municipalities can access for fuel reductions. In Mission, for example, the municipality has planned for fuel reductions over 211 hectares. But this year, Mission will complete only 5.5 hectares of fuel treatments. While the city hopes to ramp up work in the years to come, communities that rely solely on provincial funding cannot hope to keep up with necessary wildfire fuel treatments because caps on fire prevention grants for municipalities and regional districts.
Meanwhile, in the Fraser Valley’s heavily forested rural areas, including the fire-prone Fraser Canyon, the cap on spending means funding will cover fuel treatments for less than 1% of the region’s driest, most “extreme” forests in any one year.
Below, you can also see maps showing which rural areas were recently deemed to have the greatest long-term fire threat.
Fuel management—deliberately reducing brush, pruning trees, and thinning stands in high-risk areas—is a key method to reducing wildfire risk. But last April, The Current reported that neither the BC Wildfire Service nor the FVRD had conducted fuel treatments in at least two years. None were planned for 2021 at the time.
And after the devastating fire season, workers from the two government bodies have been busy addressing the fall-out from November’s floods.
“There hasn’t been any fuel management project on the go, it has largely been flood response and now they’re into training for next year,” BC Wildfire spokesperson Marg Drysdale told The Current.
Tactical FireSmart programs aim to both prevent fires and stop them from damaging buildings. Logan Lake was hailed for the effectiveness of its independent FireSmart work when the White Rock Lake fire approached town last summer. Fuel treatment is a type of FireSmart activity that seeks to reduce the amount of burnable material in forests to reduce a fire’s intensity, danger, and rate of spread. This is sometimes done through controlled burns during times of low fire risk. It can also involve pruning trees and manually removing material in specified areas.
Behind, by a century
Much of Logan Lake’s FireSmart work was done in the town’s sprawling community forest, and with money generated by timber sales. (Mission also has a community forest and forestry department, and the Cascade Lower Community Forest operates in the Hope area.) But most communities rely on government grants to fund fire prevention work including, but not limited to, fuel reductions.
Communities are eligible for up to $150,000 for forest fire prevention funding through the Community Resiliency Investment (CRI) program. Regional districts can get $50,000 extra for each individual electoral district. That puts the FVRD’s cap at around $550,000. Municipalities can choose to spend some or all of that money on fuel treatments. But the work is costly—and the funding also capped. In the Coastal Fire Centre, which covers most of the Fraser Valley, communities can get up to $12,500 per hectare of treatment.
The vast bulk of money the Fraser Valley Regional District has received recently through the provincial Community the CRI program has gone towards educational and planning work, and not towards fuel treatment, though the district has said it intends to seek funding for fuel treatments in the future. The FVRD indicated last year that it hoped to ask for money to carry out fuel reductions in future years. It did not get any money for 2022. But even if it gets funding in the future, it won’t go far.
The FVRD has more than 1.4 million hectares of land. About 5.4% of land is agricultural, about 1% is used for cities and towns, and most of the rest is forested mountainous terrain. The region has well over one million hectares of forest. In 2020, a consultant for the FVRD mapped the fire threat near rural structures and roads in the region and declared at least 5,000 hectares to be an “extreme” threat. See fire threat maps for three risk areas here. The full reports can be found here: Zone A (Hope/Fraser Canyon) | Zone B (Harrison Mills to Hatzic Valley) | Zone C (Popkum/Chilliwack River Valley/Cultus)
If the FVRD were to use its entire allotment of $550,000 of CRI funds on fuel treatments, it would have enough money to reduce fuel loads across just 44 hectares of forest—an area about twice the University of the Fraser Valley’s Abbotsford campus.
If the FVRD to relies on the CRI funding, it will take more than a century to perform fuel treatments on those 5,000 extreme-threat hectares.
Five hectares done, 205.5 to go
The FVRD is responsible for rural areas. But cities are responsible for fuel treatments within their community limits. Mission is the only local municipality that local fire officials say have planned some fuel reduction work. (It’s possible some other municipalities may have independently taken action to reduce some fuel loads.) The FVRD has focused its recent funding requests on providing wildfire prevention programs in its outlying electoral areas. The district’s FireSmart co-ordinator has been undertaking neighbourhood assessments and hosting workshops for residents.
The province has recently pledged $90 million more for the CRI program, but the $150,000 cap remains. The Current asked Forestry Minister Katrina Conroy at a press conference earlier this month whether her ministry planned to expand the $150,000 cap. She did not answer the question.
In three of the last five years, the province has spent more than $500 million on fighting forest fires after they’ve already begun.