British Columbia

'It creates anxiety:' Vancouver Island tourism operators dreading wildfire season

Local Vancouver Island tourism business owners say an intensified wildfire season could discourage tourists from visiting their areas.

Flames and smoke could hinder visitor numbers this summer, say business owners

Wildfires are already dotting Vancouver Island in 2019. (BC Wildfire Service/Canadian Press)

Ronda Murdock says nothing interrupts a meditative forest walk like the smell of wildfire smoke. 

The hiking company owner said the wildfire season on Vancouver Island last year disappointed her customers and many complained about the smoke.

"It blocked the beautiful scenery," she said. "It just wasn't as enjoyable." 

Murdock and her husband own and operate Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours in Parksville.

She said that after her customers told her last year they'd rerouted their trips because of the smoke, she's now concerned about how this summer's wildfires might impact the business she started in 1999. 

"It's not just the wildfires on the island," she explained. "It's the smoke from other areas as well."

British Columbia has witnessed the worst wildfire activity in history the past two summers. 2018 saw 1.35 million hectares burned. Tens of thousands of people were displaced from their homes.

Ronda Murdock says she takes her customers on "forest bathing" walks during the summer, though the experience is not as pleasant with lingering wildfire smoke. (Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours Facebook page)

Wildfires already on the island

A number of wildfires have already peppered Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast this year.

"It's quite surprising actually. Our fire danger rating is higher than pretty much everywhere else in the province," Donna MacPherson, the Coastal Fire Centre's information officer, told the CBC Monday. 

She said the region is on a high-to-extreme fire danger rating because of the lack of rain on the coast. 

Vancouver Island has been unusually dry this year. "Our fire danger rating is higher than pretty much everywhere else in the province," said Donna MacPherson, the Coastal Fire Centre information officer. (Michael Mcarthur/CBC)

'It creates anxiety'

In Port Alberni, Blake Johnson says he's concerned that wildfires might hinder him from expanding his local sea kayaking company to include a cycling business. 

Johnson, who owns Batstar Adventure Tours, said some of his customers have been concerned about their respiratory health. He said a wildfire last year came as close as four kilometres from home and business. 

"One of my guests woke me up in the middle of the night and said, 'Is this something we should be worried about?' "

A call to the regional fire centre confirmed it was under control, but Johnson says the scare could potentially turn visitors away.

"If it's actually to the point where you can taste the air ... it definitely creates anxiety," he said.

Johnson explained that "Port Alberni is a valley that holds the heat" and traps smoke, noting that heavy winds also disrupt the area and could make the direction of wildfire unpredictable.

Johnson said the prospects of wildfire are "sobering" in an area that's already not as much of a tourist draw as other locations along the coast. 

'This is the world today'

Anthony Everett, the president of Tourism Vancouver Island, said that all tourism operators should be aware of the potential for wildfire on the island this summer. "This is the world today," he said. "This is climate change."

Everett said extreme weather events are particularly concerning for towns on peninsulas, like Tofino and Ucluelet. "There's one road in and one road out," he said, limiting evacuation routes. 

 

New emergency plan

This summer, the organization is using $25,000 in funding from the provincial government announced early this month, to focus on emergency communication for island tourism as part of a wider strategy for all B.C. tourism regions. 

Everett said he plans to hire an emergency coordinator to deliver prompt, real-time information to tourism businesses and visitors.  

He said the organization also plans to build a regional database of tourism companies in the case of emergency.

"I've been in tourism for 30 years, and this is something I never thought I'd be helping to create in my career," he said. "Things have changed a lot in our world."

About the Author

Adam van der Zwan is a journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. You can send him a news tip at adam.van.der.zwan@cbc.ca.

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