This summer has been the worst wildfire season in Canada, and it reached that landmark not in August, or even July, but on June 25.
The British Columbia situation is similar. By June 18, the Donnie Creek fire officially became the largest fire in provincial history. Fires all over the southern Interior followed—in Osoyoos, Kamloops, Adams Lake, West Kelowna, Keremeos, Twin Lakes, the Fraser Canyon and more.
The human and environmental toll has been enormous. More than 1,800 fires have burned more than 1.6 million hectares of forest, many homes have been lost, thousands have been forced to leave their homes and five people have lost their lives, including four firefighters killed in the line of duty.
I attended a memorial service in Penticton for Zak Muise, a young firefighter who died while working on the Donnie Creek fire. It was a moving experience to see firefighters from all over the province—and several (crews and) trucks from the United States—gather to pay their respects.
I want to acknowledge the tremendous efforts of all the firefighting crews, on land and in the air, working in very difficult conditions, extremely hot weather and steep terrain, doing their best to keep us all safe.
I toured the Osoyoos neighbourhoods with Osoyoos fire personnel and Harjit Sajjan, the new federal emergency preparedness minister, to see how close the Eagle Bluff fire came to homes in one large neighbourhood. Many homes were within a couple of metres of blackened brush, and it was remarkable that every home in a large neighbourhood was saved from a fast-moving fire.
This fire season has overwhelmed crews, emergency planners and governments from coast to coast in Canada. While it’s tempting to think of it as a once-in-a-lifetime year of catastrophic fires, the experts tell us this hot year may well be one of the coolest in the coming decades.
We must adapt to this and change how we fight fires, how we prepare for them and how we repair communities that have been impacted.
One idea I’ve been trying to promote is that of a national wildfire fighting force. Fighting forest fires is a provincial responsibility, it’s clear that most provinces get quickly overwhelmed when periods of dry, hot weather produce ideal conditions for combustion and any point of ignition quickly grows into an unmanageable conflagration.
A well-trained national force could be deployed into regions where large fires are likely, and be in place so they can rapidly attack any fire that pops up, putting it out before it gets out of hand. This force could work all year-round, thinning forests around communities at the interface with forests, reducing the chance of catastrophic fires in coming years.
Even in a well-prepared province like B.C., with a large, well-trained force in the BC Wildfire Service, we have to bring in crews from all over the world in summers like 2023. A national force of 400 to 500 members would be able to respond more quickly and efficiently.
We could also increase our inventory of specialized water bombers. Canada still makes water bombers—the DHC-515 is the latest in a line of successful models. Unfortunately, the long list of orders for it all come from overseas. Building a squadron of these planes for use here in Canada would not just help our fire-fighting capabilities but also boost our aerospace industry.
It is heartening to see how our communities are stepping up to help one another. Many people have contacted my offices asking how they can help evacuees and other people affected by fires in our area.
One route is through the United Way’s B.C. Wildfire Recovery Fund, where you can donate and find information on volunteer opportunities. Canadian Red Cross has also set up a British Columbia Fires Appeal to help those in need.
Those wanting to help can also contact local food banks, as well as Salvation Army and B.C. SPCA offices. CanadaHelps.org has compiled a list of organizations that are verified safe places to donate.
Of course, one of the easiest ways to help is to be extremely careful in the woods. About one-quarter of the wildfires in B.C. this summer were caused by people, whether through campfires, cigarettes, or just sparking brakes. One careless move could destroy forests, homes and livelihoods.
Please follow directions and stay informed with information from your local government authority and First Nation.
Let’s all stay safe and continue to help one another.
Richard Cannings is the NDP MP for South Okanagan-West Kootenay.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.