Consultants John Cathro (right) and Bruce Blackwell speak to the Regional District of Central Kootenay board Thursday about their proposed strategy for reducing wildfire risk.

Central Kootenay wildfire work needs more cash: study

It could take more than 50 years to reduce the wildfire risk on high priority crown lands within the Regional District of Central Kootenay.

At the rate things are going, it could take more than 50 years to reduce the wildfire risk on high priority crown lands within the Regional District of Central Kootenay.

That finding was presented to the board Thursday as part of a wildfire strategy that also calls for a door-to-door outreach program and bylaws to ensure new development doesn’t increase the overall fire risk.

Consulting foresters Bruce Blackwell and John Cathro made seven recommendations and laid out three scenarios as part of a study of the regional district’s ongoing efforts to reduce its fire hazard.

Under the status quo, a little over $800,000 per year is spent treating high-risk areas around the region, channeled mostly through the Union of BC Municipalities. That’s enough to cover about 60 hectares annually, but over 3,300 hectares have been identified as top priority, meaning it would take 55 years to get it all done.

In what the consultants described as the “all-in” scenario, funding would be increased to nearly $4 million per year to finish the job in as little as a decade. But that would require a partnership between the regional district and six municipalities as well as about $350,000 in local taxation.

Alternatively, they floated a scaled-down proposal that would cost $1.9 million per year of which $200,000 would come from local taxes.

“If the regional district wants outside investment, they’re going to need to put some money on the table,” said Cathro, who lives in Kaslo. “In order to attract $3 million or $4 million per year, we’re talking about putting less than 10 per cent of that in themselves. It’s got to be seen as an investment.”

And that’s just dealing with crown land — the amount of high-priority private land is pegged at more than three times as much. While no money can be spent directly on private land, the consultants argue more can be done to educate landowners.

“There is a huge disconnect in the education and outreach,” Blackwell said. “Many private land owners don’t understand the risk they face and they could lose all their assets. Unless we can engage them we’re not going to bite a significant chunk off this problem.”

Blackwell suggested any local tax money should be focused on a “robust” public outreach program, which might include a door-to-door campaign and a web-based tool allowing homeowners to see their property’s wildfire risk.

Cathro said another key part of their strategy is a bylaw requiring things like setbacks from vegetation and new roofing standards to prevent the problem from getting worse. A dozen BC municipalities and regional districts already have such legislation.

The consultants added that while the work may appear slow, significant strides have been made in the decade since the devastating Kelowna wildfires and this region is further ahead than many.

“We’ve made great progress,” Blackwell said. “This is an incredibly complex issue. When we started the majority of the population didn’t even understand there was an issue. Now we have a lot more understanding but have to get something done.”

Regional district chair John Kettle welcomed the report although he didn’t think there would be much appetite for increased local taxes to pay for what he calls a provincial responsibility.

“My preference would not be to go to the taxpayer and ask them for more money for this provincial program,” he said. But he acknowledged the report can’t be ignored: “If we don’t do a better job, we could face millions of dollars worth of damage.”

Kettle said they’ve already met three times with the forests minister on the issue and anticipates further discussions with both the provincial government and Union of BC Municipalities.

Values at risk

Crown land considered top priority for fire mitigation in the RDCK: 3,331 hectares

Considered second priority: 15,943 hectares

Private land considered top priority: 11,049 hectares

Considered second priority: 7,897 hectares

Total property assessment in the RDCK: $9 billion

Assessment In Nelson: $1.8 billion

Nakusp: $232 million

Kaslo: $179 million

Ymir: $90 million

Amount spent annually on fire mitigation work in the RDCK: $810,000

Amount spent to date in the RDCK, RDKB, and RDEK: Over $5 million

Source: Regional District of Central Kootenay wildfire strategy, Blackwell and Cathro