Decades of inaction fuel what may be worst wildfire season ever, says expert

Written By Jeff Davies

“Just think if we had taken it more seriously 20 or more years ago, how much farther along we’d be.”

––Bob Gray

Canada must be “on a war footing” and spend “big, big money” to tackle the problem of wildfires in what is shaping up to be one of the hottest summers and worst fire seasons, says one veteran B.C. wildfire ecologist. 

Fires are burning with an intensity that’s rare this early in the season – trees are being reduced to piles of ash, says Chilliwack-based wildfire ecologist Robert Gray. 

“We’re seeing just ridiculous levels of energy released right now. It’s just unheard of.”

From coast to coast, it’s already shaping up as possibly the worst wildfire season in Canadian history, notes Gray. 

Governments at all levels in Canada must spend billions of dollars to prevent even more devastating wildfires, he adds. “We’ve got like 10 years to turn this boat around. Otherwise, we are truly screwed.”

Call for more prescribed burning came two decades ago

Gray has been issuing similar warnings for 20 years. He was one of the authors of the report Firestorm 2003, commissioned by the B.C. government.

Wildfires destroyed hundreds of homes in Kelowna and Barriere in what became known as the Summer of Fire. Former Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon was appointed to head a commission of inquiry that held hearings around the province.

Filmon’s report recommended the B.C. government and municipalities act quickly to reduce the fuel load in the forest, through prescribed burning, thinning the forest, finding ways to use waste wood, and removing dead wood, logging slash, needles, and twigs from the forest floor.

But Gray says there’s been little progress: “I just think that if we had taken it more seriously 20 or more years ago, how much farther along we’d be. But there was a very cynical response, and I think we could hold those people responsible. They weren’t thinking about the science. And the consequences are huge. And they’re only going to get worse for our children and grandchildren.”

“We’re burning less than 10,000 hectares a year (in B.C.). New Jersey burns more than that.”

Bob Gray

The worst three wildfire years in B.C. history were in the past decade: 2018, 2017 and 2021. The direct cost of fighting those fires was more than $1.8 billion dollars. Together, the fires in those three years consumed more than 3.4 million hectares, or 34,000 square kilometers, of forest, slightly more than the total area of Vancouver Island, 32,100 square kilometers.

‘Big, big money’ needed for fire prevention, risk reduction

Rural, northern, and indigenous communities in B.C. are on the front lines and this year’s fire season is off to an early start.

The second biggest wildfire in B.C. history is burning at Donnie Creek in northeastern B.C. The fire had spread to nearly 311,000 hectares as of publication, according to the BC Wildfire Service.

Fires burning in B.C. as of June 7. Flame: highly visible wildfire or potential threat to public safety. Red dot: out-of-control fire. Red outline: fire being held. Green dot: fire under control. [Map BCWS]

Gray says the federal and provincial governments need to invest more money directly in fire prevention and risk reduction rather than just fire suppression.  He’s critical of programs such as FireSmart, which he says spends much of its money on administration and public relations, rather than getting boots on the ground.

“Twenty years after the recommendation on prescribed burning, and we’re burning less than 10,000 hectares a year (in B.C.). New Jersey burns more than that.”

The Donnie Creek fire complex, the second largest fire in B.C.’s history, will need to be managed into the fall, says BC Wildfire Service. [Image BCWS]

It will take “big, big money” to do what’s needed, Gray says. Billions of dollars. “You know, (federal minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness) Bill Blair announced $300 million for training and stuff. It’s a joke.” 

‘I’ve lost my patience’

In social media posts and interviews this week, Gray expressed anger, frustration, and depression at the lack of preparedness. 

“Once again seeing and hearing stories of whole communities, especially indigenous communities, being evacuated,” he writes in one post on LinkedIn. ‘I’ve lost my patience with our inept, immoral approach.”

In a commentary published in the Globe and Mail and widely circulated online, Gray calls this a serious social justice issue. “Those most affected by wildfires – rural, northern and isolated Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities – are usually last in line for mitigation funding.”

Recalling the devastating Telegraph Creek fire five years ago, Gray says, “Those poor people were evacuated in July and didn’t go home until December. We had people at this trashy motel on the outskirts of Chilliwack. I’m not sure where else they put them, but they don’t put them at the Four Seasons. 

“It’s immoral keeping people out of their homes for that long.”