Pay now or later: Cranbrook looks to log Crown land as preventative measure against wildfires

Cranbrook, B.C., is highly susceptible to wildfires and, after the evacuations last summer, the city is looking at how to fireproof the community.

New study compares cost of creating buffer zone now to future cost of evacuations

A wildfire burns near Moyie Lake in the East Kootenay, south of Cranbrook, B.C. (Moyie Marine)

Cranbrook, B.C., is highly susceptible to wildfires, and, after widespread evacuations last summer in the region, the city is looking at how to fireproof the community.

The city hasl hired fire ecologist Bob Gray to look at the different options and evaluate the cost of creating a buffer zone.

Gray argues that it's a case of paying now or paying later.  

"There is an opportunity cost and then there is [the cost] associated with not treating it," Gray told Chris Walker, the host of CBC's Daybreak South.

Bob Gray's study recommends treating and logging an area of Crown land southwest of Cranbrook, as a fire prevention measure. (Bob Gray)

The main area Gray is looking to is 33,000 hectares of Crown land about 25 kilometres to the southwest and 15 kilometres to the south, where, he says, the main fire risk is likely to come from.

Logging that area would bring in some revenue but still lead to about a $28 million net loss — even with $80 million to $90 million from selling the material.

Costs of waiting

An upfront prevention investment is far better than catastrophic economic losses afterwards, Gray said.

His study looked at the cost of evacuating the area if wildfires got out of hand.

"In a three day evacuation, we found it was about $51 million," he said.

That estimate includes moving costs, shelters and lost productivity from businesses closing.

Last summer, more than 45,000 British Columbians were displaced because of wildfires. Hundreds of properties near Cranbook received evacuation alerts and Cranbook, itself, was nearly evacuated.  

"We are hoping that this fire season has been something different from past fire seasons in that there is a definite wake-up call," Gray said.

Smoke billows from a wildfire burning near Moyie Lake, south of Cranbrook B.C. (Marise Auffray)

The problem, he said, is the quality of the wood in the land that would be treated. 

"[It's] a fairly picked over landscape. It's been logged numerous times," he said. "It's just poor quality material that is good for bio-energy, but it's expensive to get it out of the wood."

Gray says there is potential revenue to the Crown from the stumpage and material but no purchasers are willing to pay much for it at the moment.

Despite that, Cranbrook Mayor Lee Pratt is convinced moving ahead with a pilot project of logging is the right move.

He has met with the provincial Ministry of Forests and, as a municipality, wants to set up a corporation to do the fire proofing, he told Daybreak South.  

Cranbrook, B.C. is highly susceptible to wildfires and, after the evacuations last summer, the city is looking at how to fireproof the community itself. 7:19

With files from Daybreak South.