This year’s wildfire season in northwest B.C. was a “wake-up call,” according to Bill Miller, Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako (RDBN) chair.
Miller played a crucial role in this year’s wildfire response. In addition to his many duties – which included ensuring the RDBN effectively implemented a series of evacuation orders and alerts – he also worked as a liaison between the BC Wildfire Service and local industry, which he says contributed significantly to firefighting efforts.
“I spent quite a bit of time around both organizations [RDBN and BC Wildfire Service] and was able to get a bird’s-eye view of what was going on,” he told Houston Today. “I certainly have some really strong opinions about how this thing has to change and where it has to go.”
Miller said his biggest takeaway from the 2018 wildfire season is that the region needs to increase its ability to respond faster when disaster strikes.
“The whole thing boils down to we need to hit that stuff quick,” he said. “Industry has to be able to put their capacity out there; they need to be pre-organized and pre-trained.”
“If industry were pre-organized and had unit crews and stuff ready to go for when a fire started, the BC Wildfire Service could just send them out; they wouldn’t have to worry about finding crews or anything else.”
Miller says local First Nations, who also played a crucial role this fire season providing food and accommodation to evacuees, should be trained as contract firefighers (type two crews).
“First Nations are there all the time and they know the land base, they have intimate knowledge of the ground; so we need to train those people,” said Miller. “We need to be pre-organized and the system needs to be much quicker to respond to those kinds of situations.”
Lack of resources
Miller says the provincial government needs to have more resources in place to combat wildfires, especially air support.
“That [air support] was one of the things we fell short,” he said. “The province has got to have that infrastructure in place.”
“At a certain point, when all the fires hit the landscape, there wasn’t enough resources if we [RDBN] had all the resources in the province,” he continued. “That’s how short we were.”
“At the end of the day, the capacity for local government or province to deal with events of this kind of scope is just not there. We’re not even close.”
According to the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, the province had 270 aircraft supporting their efforts during the 2018 season.
“We’re aware of the complaints about not enough resources in the early stages of the wildfires,” said the ministry in a statement. “The BC Wildfire Service prioritizes resources where needs are greatest with human life and safety being the number one priority in extinguishing new fire starts.”
“After each significant wildfire season, the BC Wildfire Service reviews actions to learn what worked well and what needs improvement,” the ministry added. “That will occur again this year.”
Residents who ignored evacuation orders
When asked about the residents south of Burns Lake who chose not to abide by evacuation orders, Miller said he understands their point of view.
“I don’t blame the people who stayed behind,” he said. “I don’t like our system right now; it’s archaic and it doesn’t work.”
“There’s definitely people that helped the process, and they were eventually even a part of the overall firefighting process,” he continued. “But if you haven’t fire smarted your place, if you aren’t defendable, or if you’re older or not physically capable of putting the fires out, you shouldn’t be there [in evacuated areas].”
Miller said the 2018 wildfire season was unprecedented.
“It was much more complex than last year in terms of geography,” he said. “It was much more complex because there were so many fires.”
“Even in our region they were spread all over our region,” he continued. “Forty per cent of our land base was either under alert or order at one point in time.”
“We’ve never had a year where there were that many fires at once.”
Apart from all the challenges encountered during this wildfire season, Miller said what stands out the most to him is how community members stepped up to the plate.
“There’s always negative stuff out there, but the biggest part for me, what I saw in our community, was that there was an incredible amount of people helping people, people out there on the fireline for days, people just going above and beyond,” he said.
“There’s a lot of stuff we gotta go through and push for, but at the end of the day there was an overwhelming amount of people that really pitched in.”
Review needs to take place
Apart from the usual wildfire season review, Miller said he hopes local governments, firefighters, industry, First Nations, contractors and community members will sit down to discuss what worked and didn’t work this summer.
“We really need a review of the operations, but that review has to be done by the people that are on the ground, not by politicians,” he said. “Out of that can come a recommendation to the province on what we have got to do.”
“This land is born of fire”
Miller also stressed the importance of a better landscape management planning, which would take into account fuel removal and fire breaks.
“This would not necessarily stop the fires, but it could slow them down to a point where we could get them under control,” he said.
“This land that we live on is born of fire; if we are going to live here, we have to know that we have to remove those fuels or we are going to burn.”