Clark: Wildfires show people at their best—and their worst

Every human-caused wildfire is preventable. Each one unnecessarily ties up crews and resources that could be deployed elsewhere.

In a crisis, you see the best and worst of human endeavour.

Earlier this week, I visited the people of Midway and Oliver as their communities rallied to battle wildfires, and recover. Everywhere, you saw people at their best. Firefighters putting themselves at risk. Ordinary men and women supporting their neighbours by opening community centres and lending everything from supplies to emotional support—equally crucial in times of crisis. The ladies in the kitchen cooking for 500 evacuees, which gives you pause, considering Midway has about 650 residents.

Unfortunately, crises also reveal people at their worst. Three flight crews in Oliver were grounded. Instead of dropping water and helping to contain the fire, they were forced to the sidelines because some individuals were flying drones. Maybe they didn’t realize they were interfering—but the delay they caused almost certainly meant more people and property were put at risk. It’s inexcusable.

Some fires are inevitable—but people are causing more and more of them, especially in summer. The causes of all three fires I saw Sunday are under investigation, but two are currently believed to be human-caused. Every human-caused wildfire is, by definition, preventable. More to the point, each one unnecessarily ties up crews and resources that could otherwise be deployed on naturally occurring fires.

These should be easy problems to fix. In an unusually hot, dry summer, it shouldn’t be difficult to explain the danger, persuade people to respect the fire ban, stop flicking lit cigarettes into dry grass, and certainly not to interfere with firefighting operations with drones. For those people who aren’t convinced, there are penalties and fines in place, ranging from $115 for failure to report a fire, to up to $100,000 and/or a year in jail for openly contravening an open fire prohibition.

You would think these would be enough. But given the events of this summer, the provincial government is considering stricter penalties in the hope that more people get the message. Forests, Lands, and Natural Resources Operations Minister Steve Thomson asked MLA Mike Morris, who had a 32-year career in law enforcement, to undertake a review.

Ultimately, these troublemakers are a tiny proportion of B.C., and while the damage they cause affects us all, they’re not representative. I prefer to think about people like one woman I met in the Midway community centre. She and her baby were evacuated from their home, came to Midway, and were eventually cleared to go home.

She chose to come back, to help the volunteers. That’s the B.C. I know.