The District of North Vancouver describes my house as being in a “wildfire interface area.” After all, the house is built of the same stuff as the second-growth forest in the park across the street.
Those trees have grown for close to a century since the old growth was logged, but you can still find a gigantic stump with a springboard notch where a logger once stood as he and his partner cut down a very big tree. One ancient snag shows the burn marks of what must have been a bad fire long ago.
After walking my dog in that park through last winter’s snow and last spring’s downpours, I watched the undergrowth burst into green and then go dry. Lately it’s been like walking on trails paved with gunpowder.
Scores of thousands of North Shore residents are in the same predicament, just like the thousands recently evacuated from their homes in the Cariboo. For that matter, everyone in British Columbia is living in the perilous wildfire interface.
After all, that interface made this British Columbia: the 19th-century Royal Navy needed the giant trees around Burrard Inlet as masts for its ships. We’ve lived by our forests for a century and a half, and many of us have died in them — dozens in the great Vancouver fire of 1886, when the wildfire interface was somewhere between Main and Cambie.
As recently as the 1970s, Vancouver autumns were dense with the smoke of loggers’ slash burning, supposedly a necessary cost of having a forest industry. We have fireproofed ourselves since those days, but not as well as we thought.
Ruled by downtown B.C.
More to the point, we have urbanized ourselves, leaving most of this enormous province to a very small number of voters from Hope to Atlin. The woods and coasts still make money for downtown British Columbia, but we outvote the rest of the province, and we don’t spend any more on it than we absolutely have to.
Downtown B.C. supports forestry in the form of raw log exports, and the coasts in the form of fish farms, but otherwise urbanites see the rest of the province as a place for hydro power and tourism. The real money these days is in downtown B.C. real estate.
But downtown B.C. is a lot better educated than it used to be, and it midwifed the modern environmental movement — Greenpeace and a host of other environmental groups. We understood climate change early on, but being human we thought of it more as someone else’s problem.
The Okanagan Mountain and Barriere fires of 2003 were shots across our bow. Kelowna might be the heart of B.C.’s Social Credit and Liberal parties, but it’s on the interface and lost over 200 homes. Barriere lost the Louis Creek sawmill.
Fires like these were nine-day wonders, soon forgotten, but last year’s Horse River fire destroyed much of Fort McMurray, and even the densest climate denier got the irony: external combustion threatened a major source of internal combustion, which in turn has warmed the planet.
Just over a year later, CBC is doing a superb job covering our own fires. But this is a global problem, and for some reason we’re not hearing much about the worst Siberian wildfires in 10,000 years. Maybe we’ll notice them when their smoke settles over Vancouver sometime this summer.
Half a billion dollars a summer
No doubt over the bitter protests of the climate deniers, at some point B.C. governments will have to start budgeting for fire control on a scale far beyond what we now spend.
While the average yearly cost of fighting B.C. wildfires between 2006 and 2016 was $182 million, we spent $382 million in 2009 and close to $300 million in both 2014 and 2015. Wildfire summers costing us half a billion dollars will likely become routine — and not just for B.C.
The preliminary cost of the Fort Mac fire is $615 million. Losing parts of Prince George or the Okanagan communities would likely set us back over a billion.
And as we lose our forests, we will also lose our ability to meet such costs. You can’t get blood from a stone, or higher taxes from people who’ve lost their homes and livelihoods.
Wildfires shaped this country long before the Europeans arrived, and the Indigenous peoples understood fire better than the newcomers. Now we are going to have to learn in a decade what they learned over centuries. If we flunk this test, we will no longer have a wildfire interface — only ashes, from here to the melting permafrost.