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Minister of Forests says BC is 'in good shape' for 2024 wildfire season

BC’s Minister of Forests says the government is well prepared for the 2024 wildfire season with new recruitment, equipment leases and funding.

Bruce Ralston sat down for an exclusive interview with NowMedia to talk about recent mill closures in northern BC, wildfires, forest management and investments in firefighting.

NowMedia asked Ralston how he felt about the already active wildfire season in the north.

Northeastern BC has already seen a lot of wildfire activity, especially near Fort Nelson, which was recently evacuated.

Additionally, there are several holdover wildfires burning in the Prince George Fire Centre, many being some of the largest fires from the 2023 season.

He said the early start to the wildfire season, especially in the north, was the consequence of the ongoing drought conditions, the low snowpack, and the low amount of rain.

“It's the reality these days. The climate is changing,” Ralston said.

“I think we are better prepared, you're never completely 100% prepared because there's always the unexpected, but I think we're in good shape in terms of preparation for this time of the year.”

Ralston pointed to the Premier's Expert Task Force on Emergencies, which was launched in September 2023.

He said the task force reviewed the 2023 season and made over 30 recommendations for how the province can improve its response to wildfires.

“I think we've taken all of those recommendations and we've acted on all of them,” he said.

“These are (...) a lot of actionable, implementable decisions. We've taken a lot of the concerns that people had from last season and worked on them.”

He said that included hiring more people, leasing more equipment and aircraft, providing funding to improve evacuation systems and exploring ways to use early detection technology.

Ralston said all the leases were signed for aircraft, including helicopters and water bombers, for this year's wildfire season.

Recently, Coulson Aviation announced that they will be converting a 737-700 into the world’s highest capacity Large Air Tanker (LAT) to fight wildfires.

<who> Photo Credit: Coulson Aviation

The minister added that there was also additional funding going into training this year.

In mid-February, the province announced a $16 million funding boost to the BC Wildfire Service for equipment and expansion of its aviation and ground fleet.

Ralston also said there were changes happening in firefighting technology.

“Early detection using drones, using night vision to detect a fire, that is the big change that's taking place in firefighting is the ability to use remote sensing, drones, satellites to pick up even just a few wisps of smoke,” Ralston said.

He said those technology changes also prompted the creation of a “first-of-its-kind” wildfire education and training centre at Thompson Rivers University, which was announced in April.

Premier David Eby said TRU was chosen because the university has already done foundational work like opening the Institute for Wildfire Science, Adaptation and Resiliency in October 2023.

“We're going to have an institute that's going to be the leading institute for fighting fire, whether it's the practical side of on the ground firefighting or whether it's the theoretical side of using AI,” Ralston said.

Work going into the preventative side with FireSmart, fuel mitigation

NowMedia asked if more could be done in regards to forest management and fuel mitigation to protect communities from wildfires.

<who> Photo Credit: BC Wildfire Service file picture

Ralston said there was no limit on the amount of money the provincial government can spend on immediate firefighting operations, saying last year the direct spending by the BC Wildfire Service was over a billion dollars.

However, he said preventative work was also necessary.

“In order to make communities safe from the wildfire, there needs to be FireSmarting,” he sid

“Basically taking steps, which involve some proactive cutting around communities in order to make them much safer when a wildfire approaches.”

He pointed to a $15 million wildfire fuel-break project being carried out in the North Okanagan to protect a water reservoir that is a water source for 18,000 people and agriculture producers in Lake Country and about 71,000 people on the Greater Vernon Water Utility.

He said a lot of planning had to go into these types of mitigation projects, adding that the budget for FireSmarting grants has been “dramatically” increased over the years.

The minister said this kind of planning and preventative work was necessary in a time when the “relationship between forest management and the future of wildfires” was changing.

“So much more active fire management forest management in the era of wildfire is necessary,” Ralston said.

“I think the Wildfire Service and the Ministry of Forests and the companies are adjusting to that.”

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