In July of 2009, wildfires chased 15,000 West Kelowna residents from their homes. The district's Mayor, Doug Findlater, was one of the evacuees. Every summer since, he stays home to keep vigil because of the recurring threat to his community.
"I dread summer, I really do," he said in an interview. "That's not the way it should be. Your life is never quite the same when you have been forced out of your house and are wondering if everything is gone."
Mr. Findlater is leading the campaign at this week's Union of B.C. Municipalities convention to press Premier Christy Clark to put more money into preventing the wildfires that threaten B.C. communities with increasing regularity.
He will present a resolution during the debates, and no doubt he will have strong support from other local leaders. But those motions often have zero impact on government policy. His hopes are pinned instead on the working sessions where mayors get to meet privately with their local MLAs: His MLA is Premier Clark.
This past July, the Premier rushed back to her constituency as wildfires once again threatened West Kelowna. She visited crews fighting the Westside Road blaze on Okanagan Lake, and later told reporters she recognizes that these kinds of severe wildfires are a challenge that will only increase in the future due to climate change.
"We have to be planning with the knowledge that this isn't going to be an unusual year," she told reporters. "These things are going to happen more often. … We have to be more ready for that."
The province spent $270-million fighting 1,800 wildfires this summer. That's similar to 2014, which was recorded as the third-worst wildfire season in the province's history.
Municipal leaders want more money spent on prevention, and it's an old refrain – a string of similar UBCM resolutions go back to 2005. The objective is to reduce the risk of interface fires – those wildfires that encroach on communities – by creating buffers of land where the underbrush has been cleared of potential fuel.
The province has spent $68-million in the past decade treating forest lands adjacent to communities, but every year, new developments are spreading into those areas most susceptible to severe fires. The backlog of untreated, high-risk land remains significant. (Forest ministry officials can't say how much; a new risk analysis is being prepared.)
Former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon was asked to report to the B.C. government on the unprecedented interface fires of 2003 that destroyed 334 homes and many businesses. Tragically, three pilots died while fighting those fires. One of Mr. Filmon's top recommendations was to invest in prevention. "A fuel management program must be re-introduced as a high priority in the interface zone," he wrote in 2004.
Last spring, a special investigation by the independent Forest Practices Board concluded that some progress has been made, but it is not nearly enough: "Most communities in B.C. remain vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire."
The report makes for bleak reading: "Unfortunately, over the past 10 years, only 10 per cent or less of hazardous forest fuels have been treated. Funding to protect at-risk communities in B.C. by removing interface fuel sources is inadequate," the board found.
Instead, most of the budget is spent on fighting fires, and those resources are limited, as well.
"As the climate changes, wildfire managers expect that the fire season will start earlier and end later in the year, and wildfires will be larger and more severe. These managers have also warned that, in a busy fire season with large 'mega fires,' resources may be overwhelmed and the public may not be able to count on them to protect communities or natural resource values."
To recap: In the decade since the Filmon report, British Columbia has tackled, at best, one-tenth of the known problem. But B.C. now has a premier whose constituents are living directly with the consequences of that meagre effort. Mayor Findlater is hopeful this is the year the province will, finally, make it a high priority.