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The Globe and Mail

Six years later, what's improved in B.C.'s fire plan?

jhunter@globeandmail.com

Even as embers the size of loonies fall around his home in Kelowna, B.C., ex-fire chief Glen Maddess feels confident about efforts to combat the wildfires raging on the edge of his community.

An expert in what went wrong during the disastrous wildfires that hit Kelowna six years ago, Mr. Maddess cautions that it is too early to see where any gaps in the firefighting effort may be. But the former Vancouver fire chief, now watching from the front row as wildfires once again threaten the community, said he sees a marked improvement in the response.

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"I have a greater confidence than what I was feeling in 2003," he said in an interview yesterday. "There is a realization at all levels, especially the provincial level, of the need to hit these dangerous interface fires hard and fast. If they don't, they can be catastrophic."

Mr. Maddess, now a firefighting consultant, helped write the provincial review on British Columbia's worst summer of wildfires, which destroyed businesses, hundreds of homes and killed three firefighters.

The Filmon report - the review was headed by former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon - made a series of recommendations that the B.C. government promised to implement.

Solicitor-General Kash Heed says B.C. is "leap years ahead" of its response this time out. Others question whether the province has done enough.

Here's a brief progress report:

Reduce Risk The top recommendation was to reduce fuel buildup, especially in high fire risk areas known as the interface - where wild forests and urban areas meet. In this case fuel equals forest: Trees, wood debris and underbrush.

Progress

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The province identified 1.7 million hectares of interface land, including 685,000 hectares that are deemed to be high risk. To date, 35,000 hectares have been cleaned up - roughly 5 per cent of the most dangerous areas where communities and forests meet. In the Kelowna region, with the highest risk ratings in the province, 830 hectares have been treated.

NDP forestry critic Norm Macdonald said that's simply inadequate. "You are going to have to spend the money one way or the other, either on prevention or on fighting fires. And if you wait for the fires, you are putting property and lives at risk."

Communications The Filmon report called for the creation of an Emergency Communications SWAT Team. "Operations at the very beginning of the fire season were marked with difficulties in getting organized dealing with the media, and in communicating with the public."

Progress

On Saturday, Orchard Park mall was broadcasting evacuation alerts and instructions as the communities of Glenrosa - Westbank came under threat.

Mr. Maddess said the communication through the media has been "extraordinary" this time around. Also improved, he noted, was communication and co-operation between agencies. But he said property owners still have some lessons to learn. "We need to work harder to get people to understand we cannot protect everything in the interface area. They need to fireproof their properties."

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Resources Even while the fire was still burning in 2003, Kelowna residents were asking why two Mars water bombers, the biggest water tankers in the world, weren't brought in sooner from their base on Vancouver Island. The Filmon report recommended: "The Office of the Fire Commissioner should implement a searchable database to maintain a current and accurate province-wide inventory of private and public sector equipment available for fire response."

Progress

Today, Coulson's Martin Mars flying boats are contracted in California. But the Office of the Fire Commissioner surveys fire departments in British Columbia to maintain an inventory of equipment available from communities in the event of major fires. As of yesterday afternoon, firefighters were waging an air attack on the Kelowna fires using helicopters hauling buckets - the capacity is smaller but they are more precise. As well, the bucket brigade was there almost immediately, Mr. Heed noted. The Glenrosa-Westbank fire had 133 firefighters, nine helicopters and eight air tankers on the scene yesterday.

Evacuation The 2003 wildfires around Kelowna led to the largest-scale evacuations in B.C. history. "That it was achieved without serious injury or loss of life is a tribute to those who worked tirelessly to help evacuate people," the Filmon report noted. But it also found that public support wasn't always there. "The province should target greater resources at ensuring better awareness by the public about the stages of evacuation, including the procedures to be followed during an evacuation and after the lifting of an evacuation order, particularly in areas of high interface fire risk."

Progress

Kelowna Councillor Robert Hobson was one of the 45,000 people evacuated in 2003. Watching from the emergency control centre this weekend, he was impressed with the difference, both from the people in charge and from the evacuees. "This time people had virtually no time to prepare - this fire just popped up and people literally had to flee," he said. Yet the process was orderly. "It was easy for people to see they needed to get out."

Also improved, Mr. Maddess noted, was communication and co-operation between agencies. But he said property owners still have some lessons to learn.

"We need to work harder to get people to understand we cannot protect everything in the interface area. They need to fireproof their properties."

Resources Even while the fire was still burning in 2003, Kelowna residents were asking why two Mars water bombers, the biggest water tankers in the world, weren't brought in sooner from their base on Vancouver Island.

The Filmon report recommended: "The Office of the Fire Commissioner should implement a searchable database to maintain a current and accurate province-wide inventory of private and public sector equipment available for fire response."

Progress: Today, Coulson's Martin Mars flying boats are contracted in California. But the Office of the Fire Commissioner surveys fire departments in British Columbia to maintain an inventory of equipment available from communities in the event of major fires.

As of yesterday afternoon, firefighters were waging an air attack on the Kelowna fires using helicopters hauling buckets - the capacity is smaller but they are more precise. As well, the bucket brigade was there almost immediately, Mr. Heed noted.

The Glenrosa-Westbank fire had 133 firefighters, nine helicopters and eight air tankers on the scene yesterday.

Evacuation The 2003 wildfires around Kelowna led to the largest-scale evacuations in B.C. history. "That it was achieved without serious injury or loss of life is a tribute to those who worked tirelessly to help evacuate people," the Filmon report noted.

But it also found that public support wasn't always there.

"The province should target greater resources at ensuring better awareness by the public about the stages of evacuation, including the procedures to be followed during an evacuation and after the lifting of an evacuation order, particularly in areas of high interface fire risk."

Progress: Kelowna Councillor Robert Hobson was one of the 45,000 people evacuated in 2003.

Watching from the emergency control centre this weekend, he was impressed with the difference, both from the people in charge and from the evacuees.

"This time people had virtually no time to prepare - this fire just popped up and people literally had to flee," he said. Yet the process was orderly.

"It was easy for people to see they needed to get out."

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More than 11,000, people have been forced from their homes in the threatened area.

POPULATION GROWTH

As the Central Okanangan continues to expand, itís also spreading farther into rural areas, making homes increasingly vulnerable to wildfires.

KELOWNA

Population

1996: 89,442

2006: 106,707

Private households

1996: 36,440

2006: 44,985

CENTRAL OKANAGAN

Population

1996: 141,628

2006: 162,276

FOREST FUEL COMPONENTS

Forests provide perfect fuel for fires when dry conditions persits.

RISKS

Existing surface fuel

Areas with standing dead trees or areas affected by mountain beetle infestations represent a fire risl.

Slash

Loggin companies thn the forests of smaller trees to help the overall health of the larger trees. Often, this material is left behind and serves as more fuel for fires.

Aerial fuels: Tree branches, moss, snags

Surface fuels: Low vegetation, large logs

Ground fuels: Leaves, grass, limbwood, duff

Mineral fuels: Roots, soil

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA, NATURAL RESOURCES CANADA, FIRESTORM 2003 PROVINCIAL REVIEW

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Comparison of 2003 and 2009 blazes

Okanagan Mountain Park Fire (2003)

Started on: Aug. 16

Size: 25,912 hectares

Cause: Lightning strike north of Wild Horse Canyon in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park

Location: 24 kilometres southwest of Kelowna

Number of people evacuated: 33,050 (4,050 evacuated twice)

Homes lost or damaged: 238

Number of firefighters: 700 at peak times

Other resources: 20 helicopters, 250 pieces of heavy equipment

Fully contained by: End of September

Cost: Approximately $33.8-million

Glenrosa-Westbank Kelowna and Rose Valley Dam, West Kelowna (2009)

Started on: July 18

Size: 400 hectares (Glenrosa); 150 hectares (Rose Valley)

Cause: Under investigation

Location: Glenrosa fire is located about 13 km north of 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire site

Number of people evacuated: 11,250

Homes lost or damaged: Three

Number of firefighters: 125

Other resources: Eight air tankers, 10 helicopters

Fully contained by: Continues burning

Cost: Still counting

Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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