A wildfire burns near the access road to Zeballos on Aug. 17, 2018. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror

North Island communities plan for wildfires amid mounting anxiety

‘We only have one exit,’ says Darren Blaney, chief of Homalco First Nation

Communities on the North Island are developing wildfire protection plans following two years that saw record-breaking areas of land consumed by flames.

Provincial grant money for the so-called Community Wildfire Protection Plans comes amid mounting anxiety about the threats posed by wildfires.

“If it goes up around us, we only have one exit,” said Darren Blaney, the elected chief of Homalco First Nation.

Homalco is among several governments that are developing wildfire plans for the first time.

Emergency planning has been in the works for several years, and elders in particular are growing concerned about the hazards posed by wildfires, said Alison Trenholm, Homalco’s director of governance.

“One of the things that is a consistent and clear message from our elders and those who have mobility issues is they’re really concerned about that potential threat,” Trenholm said.

“Particularly because we’ve only got the one road in and out of our community, it’s something that we’re very aware of and try to be vigilant about,” she said.

Last week, the province announced $265,000 in grants for wildfire reduction efforts as part of its Community Resiliency Investment program, which was launched in the wake of last year’s record-breaking wildfire season.

By late August, the BC Wildfire Service reported that some 1.29 million hectares of land had burned, compared to 1.21 million hectares in 2017, previously the worst year for wildfires on record in the province.

READ MORE: 2018 now B.C.’s worst wildfire season on record

The new funding includes $25,000 for Campbell River, roughly $20,000 each for Homalco First Nation and the Regional District of Mount Waddington and $200,000 for the Strathcona Regional District (SRD).

Campbell River’s wildfire protection plan was last updated in 2013.

The 66-page 2013 plan said that while large wildfires don’t happen frequently in the Campbell River area, wildfires do occur each year – human-caused blazes being the most common by far – and “a confluence of conditions could produce a wildfire that would pose a risk to the community.”

The biggest hazard for Campbell River involves vegetative buildup around residential structures, according to the report.

READ MORE: Oyster River fire crews respond to three separate fires Sunday

It stressed that a top priority should be to raise public awareness among residents about FireSmart principles, such as using fire-resistant construction materials and removing potential fuels from around buildings.

The fire department isn’t taking the treat of wildfires lightly, said Stephanie Bremer, manager of fire administration for Campbell River in an interview on Monday.

“We’re definitely keeping an eye on it,” Bremer said, noting that local fire chief Thomas Doherty is in constant communication with the BC Wildfire Service, among other measures.

The grant will also fund the development of a landscaping guide involving fire-resistant plants that thrive naturally in Campbell River’s Western Hemlock climatic zone, Bremer said.

The wildfire protection plans for Sayward, Gold River, Tahsis and Zeballos all date back six years or more, says Shaun Koopman, the SRD’s protective services coordinator.

The regional district plans to collaborate with those villages on developing their plans amid rapidly changing weather conditions linked to climate change.

For example, information about droughts and average temperatures in the wildfire protection plan for Tahsis are out of date, Koopman said.

He said new recommendations are needed for the protection of remote SRD communities.

The previous wildfire protection plan for Zeballos recommended the replacement of the Sugarloaf Bridge. It was a deteriorating wooden structure that Koopman described as vulnerable to fires.

The span was replaced in 2017, drastically lowering risk for a community that has just two links to its only access road.

The other link to the access road, North Maquinna Avenue, was closed by the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure until last week due to the risk of falling debris caused by last summer’s wildfires.

And while North Maquinna could have been used for an evacuation, Koopman said, the situation underlines the geographic isolation faced by many North Island residents in case of a wildfire.

“That’s the reality of a lot of rural communities. You’ve got one way in, you’ve got one way out, surrounded by power lines and forests.”

The SRD also plans to work with two Indigenous communities on the Island’s west coast, namely the Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k:tles7et’h and Nuchatlaht First Nation, to draft their first-ever fire protection plans, which are a prerequisite for future FireSmart funding, Koopman said.

“These are really the guiding documents of everything else we do,” he said.

Last summer, health issues and smoky conditions prompted Nuchatlaht First Nation to close the band office at its Oclucje reserve near Zeballos. Many people living on the Oclucje reserve reportedly left the area amid heavy smoke.

Provincial grant money will also go towards developing fire protection plans for two other populated areas within the SRD, Koopman said. Those include Electoral Area A – which stretches west of Campbell River to the Nootka and Kyoquot sounds – and Read Island, just east of Quadra Island.

Koopman added that conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours are among the most effective ways to improve wildfire preparedness.

“That’s how motivation spreads,” he said. “So if you have undertaken FireSmart Principles on your property, please make it part of the conversation with your friends and family members.”

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A heavy helicopter buckets wildfires at Zeballos last August. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror

Correction: A previous version of this article said the Homalco First Nation reserve is located in Bute Inlet. That area forms part of Homalco First Nation’s traditional territory and most of its reserve land is located there, but the wildfire preparations described in the article refer to Homalco First Nation’s reserve in Campbell River. This article was updated on May 15-16 to correct the record.

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