British Columbia

Can government incentives to private companies help solve B.C.'s wildfire crisis?

Fire ecologist Robert Gray makes the same argument every year — wildfires are at a crisis level and removing their fuel by thinning British Columbia’s forests is the best way to mitigate them.

Fire ecologist Bob Gray says the province should subsidize companies that clear wildfire fuel

Verne Tom photographs a wildfire burning along a logging road approximately 20 kilometres southwest of Fort St. James, B.C., on Aug. 15, 2018. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Fire ecologist Robert Gray makes the same argument every year — wildfires are at a crisis level and removing their fuel by thinning British Columbia's forests is the best way to mitigate them.

Gray also gets frustrated annually at what he believes is a lack of investment in wildfire prevention in B.C., especially after devastating seasons in 2017 and 2018.

That's why he is taking an entirely different approach this time, knowing full well it won't be popular with many people in the construction industry and free market capitalists.

The idea, in a nutshell, is for the provincial government to provide financial incentives for private companies to remove the biomass that jeopardizes B.C.'s forests.

"We understand the fire science pretty well, but maybe this is an economics issue," said Gray, a private consultant.

"Maybe we're approaching it the wrong way."

Fire ecologist Robert Gray says more fuel needs to be cleared from B.C.'s forests to prevent wildfires. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

Government subsidies

Gray said a government subsidy would make it profitable for forestry companies to harvest wood that either goes untouched or ends up in slash piles.

He would like to see those materials used for bioenergy projects, such as wood chips, or ground up into manufactured wood products that can be used for construction.

"Competing with engineered wood products are cement, steel and vinyl, and as far as building materials are concerned, they have a big carbon footprint," he said.

"If we can enter the market and replace those things with engineered wood products, we're solving two problems — reducing the wildfire costs and reducing emissions."

Gray expects pushback from the cement, steel and vinyl industries, and knows government intervention in the free market is always controversial.

The B.C. Council of Forest Industries won't comment until Gray releases a paper about his idea for government incentives for his consulting firm.

Smoke rises from an area burned by the Shovel Lake wildfire near Endako, B.C., late on Aug. 16, 2018. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Opposition

John Rustad, the B.C. Liberal forests, lands and natural resources operations critic who previously served as the province's forests minister, doesn't think government subsidies are the answer.

"If the government comes in and tries to do it, whether it's through subsidies or adjustments, that creates all kinds of challenges over time," he said.

"It's hard to look at the subsidy side of it. You start wondering what else could be done with that same dollar."

In the short term, Rustad said, the province should hire people who are currently out of work to clear fuel from B.C.'s forests.

In the long term, a generational shift is needed so that forestry crews harvest all the usable material they can, he said.

"We need to get to a system where we're looking at a single pass to bring the fibre out. It takes government to say we're going to work with companies to change the way we get fibre off the ground."

The Shovel Lake wildfire destroyed 920 square kilometres and triggered several community evacuations in northern B.C. in the summer of 2018. (B.C. Wildfire Service/Contributed )

Government dollars

In the spring, the B.C. government announced its wildfire management budget is increasing by 58 per cent to $101 million annually.

The province also increased its Community Resiliency Investment program from $50 million to $60 million to help local governments and First Nations reduce wildfire risks.

Gray said that when you consider how much B.C. spends battling wildfires — the total in 2017 and 2018 adds up to more than $840 million — it makes more sense to invest in prevention.

"We don't want to be a couple generations down the road looking back at us and going, 'You had an opportunity here to solve this and you weren't willing to question a couple existing paradigms,'" he said.

"Maybe we could have tried something innovative and try something new."

With files from Ethan Sawyer

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