Regional funds available for strategic wildfire prevention in Central Okanagan

Removing fuel, planning for wildfire among the initiatives available for funding

With blazes in Fintry, Falkland, Kelowna and West Kelowna burned into the collective memory of local residents, communities are being urged to take action against wildfires.

On Thursday, the provincial government announced an additional $5 million for the strategic wildfire prevention initiative.

“The top priority is safeguarding British Columbians,” said Forests Minister Steve Thomson during a press conference at the Vernon Fire Zone office in the Commonage.

The new funding will focus on prescription and fuel treatment projects in communities facing higher-than-average wildfire risks.

“There’s a huge need,” said Catherine Lord, Vernon councillor, of wildlands adjacent to residential subdivisions.

The City of Vernon is already receiving assistance through the previous program mandate, but fire chief Keith Green admits there are challenges when it comes to reducing fuel load such as trees and grass.

“We’re dealing with private landowners who we hope will use Fire Smart principles,” he said.

In the past, the District of Lake Country has done widespread fuel modification near the Lakes subdivision.

Victoria introduced the strategic wildfire prevention initiative in 2004. Since then, the program provided $62 million to help municipalities, regional districts and First Nations reduce wildfire risks.

As of Dec. 31, 2014, 279 wildfire protection plans have been completed by local governments and First Nations across the province. Another 33 are still moving ahead.

Besides removing fuel, the funding allows jurisdictions to proceed with planning.

“Communities can look at zoning and access for emergency vehicles,” said Rhona Martin, with the Union of B.C. Municipalities and a Columbia-Shuswap Regional District director.

Another player in the program is the First Nations Emergency Services Society.

“Our society’s programs focus on fire prevention and forest fuel management, including Fire Smart projects,” said president Ed Mountain.

“Prevention is key to reducing wildfire risks and enhancing safety in the wildland-urban interface.”

Current weather conditions have some wondering if wildfires will be a significant issue this year.

“This winter was drier than normal and the possibility of fire could be high this summer,” said Lord.

Thomson is unwilling to predict what the upcoming wildfire season could bring.

“We’re ready but so much of it is weather dependant,” he said, adding that the $5 million funding announcement is a critical step towards being prepared.

“We all recognize the risk communities face. We need to do what we can to help communities reduce the interface risk.”

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