The Fortis chipper at work in the Balfour area. Photo: Fortis BC

Fortis cleaning up controversial fire hazard slash near Balfour

Company is not legally required to remove debris from private or Crown land

There are two types of fire hazards on the FortisBC hydro line right-of-way near Balfour.

One is the risk of trees falling on power lines and igniting fires.

Balfour fire chief Nora Hannon told the Star in an email last week that since 2015 there have been “five fires/incidents that Balfour Harrop Fire attended as a result of a tree falling on a Fortis transmission line.”

So Fortis has decided to widen its right of way to avoid this, thereby creating a second and perhaps greater fire hazard: they’ve left the slash and debris on the right-of-way.

The company is not required to clean this up – that’s the responsibility of the Crown or the private landowners over whose land the company has easements.

“In various discussions about how will the slash be dealt with,” said Queens Bay resident John Beerbower. “We have been told by them that it won’t be dealt with, it is the landowner’s responsibility to deal with timber and slash. They have no requirement to clean up after themselves.”

But the company has changed its mind, and now on the Fortis transmission line near Queens Bay a large chipper is at work chewing up and spitting out the debris.

“I have seen the monster chipper they have brought in, and that is good to see,” said landowner Galen Roos.

The company has done this about-face, Fortis’ Nicole Brown told the Star, because it’s the right thing to do. She said the company has hired a wildfire expert who has told them they should chip or remove drying shrubbery and branches because of the wildfire risk.

The chipped material will be spread thinly over a large area of the right-of-way if the terrain makes it too difficult to haul away, she said.

“In this instance [the widening of the right-of-way] is requiring more tree falling than usual,” Brown said. “We are going beyond industry standards to remove debris on behalf of the property owners.”

She said the cost “ultimately gets passed on to our customers.”

Fortis won’t be hauling away the logs they’ve cut, though. Those are the property of the Crown or the landowners and will stay on the ground.

Some local landowners think the chipper is there in reaction to a CBC story last week in which the landowners accused Fortis of creating a wildfire hazard by leaving drying and flammable debris. They say the chipper was brought in as damage control after the media publicity, but Brown disagrees. She says the machine actually arrived and started working two days before the CBC reporter first called her.

Roos, who happens to be a wildfire mitigation contractor, says he likes Fortis’ new direction but he has questions.

“I understand what they are doing,” he told the Star. “They are trying to mitigate wildfire hazard. Their original plan was going to do the opposite. It looks like they have realized the error of their ways now. It is not perfect but that is what I wanted to see.”

Roos is now coping with the fact that a part of his property has been logged, but by someone else with no notice.

“Those are my logs, so I am going to try to get them to market. But it is not how I would have done it. They are forcing my hand. I have to deal with these logs when they are green now, partly because they have value and partly because the longer they are left on the ground the more they attract the Douglas-fir beetle.”

The transmission line that runs south from Coffee Creek and along the West Arm of Kootenay Lake is owned by Fortis even though residents in the Balfour area are customers of Nelson Hydro, which buys a portion of its power from Fortis.

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An example of Fortis’ right-of-way widening on private land near Balfour. The company was not originally planning to chip and remove the debris, but has changed its mind due to public pressure and advice from a wildfire expert. Photo: John Beerbower

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