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People in British Columbia will have to get used to the possibility that next summer’s smoky skies may be the result of fires started by the government, says Forests Minister Doug Donaldson.

The provincial government is endorsing the expanded use of prescribed burns as a firefighting tool and will work to amend laws and regulations that govern them, he said Wednesday.

The Forests Ministry says prescribed burns involve the planned and controlled application of fire to a specific land area to improve public safety and the management of forest land.

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“Communities, when they see smoke, they have concerns but if they know that smoke is in a controlled way rather than haphazard throughout the year, that’s a lot better for people,” Donaldson said.

Changes to the Environmental Management Act, he said, are meant “to make sure that people know that smoke will be in their communities more often but at least in a planned way.”

Increasing the number of controlled burns is part of the government’s answer to an independent report last May that made 108 recommendations to overhaul disaster response practices after devastating wildfires and floods in 2017, he said.

Unprecedented wildfires forced the provincial government to declare states of emergency during the 2017 and 2018 forest fire seasons. Wildfires burned more than 1.3 million hectares in B.C. this year, the largest amount on record. In 2017, wildfires burned 1.2 million hectares, forced 65,000 people from their homes and were estimated to cost about $650-million.

The report by former cabinet minister George Abbott and Indigenous leader Maureen Chapman called for greater partnerships with First Nations, local, provincial and federal governments to prepare for emergencies and disasters. Abbott said as a former health minister he would have rejected prescribed burns because of the health hazard caused by smoke but now sees them as a way to protect communities from devastating fires.

The Forests Ministry’s response to the report includes incorporating local and traditional Indigenous knowledge into community wildfire protection plans. Chapman and Abbott said Indigenous people have used prescribed burns to protect their communities and regenerate forest areas for centuries.

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