In the forests that surround Maple Ridge, you only have to dig a few metres to find a charred layer, evidence of a time when wildfires were more frequent is not difficult to find.
In 1929, a spark from a locomotive caused an extensive, disastrous blaze that destroyed almost 60,000 hectares of forest and ended logging in the Alouette River valley.
Back then, Maple Ridge was sparsely populated. Now, with suburbs built into the edge of the forests, the consequences of wildfire would be costly and traumatic.
That’s why every community needs to assess those risks, says Lori Daniels, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia who is using tree rings to reconstruct the history of forests and better understand the effects of fire, pest outbreaks and climate change.
“We tend to think that there is such a low probability of it happening that it’s something we shouldn’t be concerned about now.”
Climate change and a large stockpile of fuel mean the forests of B.C. are moving towards another chapter of frequent fires.
We may think of coastal “rain forests” as not burning frequently, and that may have been true 100 years ago, before logging and when most of the trees were huge, old-growth giants.
“Those aren’t the forests that surround our communities any longer,” says Daniels.
Almost all the forests near urban areas are second growth, having regenerated over the past 60 to 100 years.
“If we are getting longer and drier summers, the fuels are becoming drier for longer periods of time,” says Daniels.
In the Interior, the effects of climate change are more pronounced.
On the coast of B.C., it is more subtle. But those changes still affect fuel.
“We have some very high fuel loads adjacent to our towns on the coast,” said Daniels.
In Maple Ridge, 60 per cent of residential development is within the forest interface.
With a large stockpile of tinder dry trees and debris on the forest floor, a wildfire could quickly get out of control.
In 2003, a fire in Kelowna destroyed 25,000 hectares of forest, burned 239 homes and led to the evacuation of 27,000 people.
It led the province to push communities across B.C. to create wildfire protection plans, with strategies to reduce the risks of total destruction.
Maple Ridge approved its Wildfire Protection Plan in 2007, but remains stalled on how to implement it.
In June, Maple Ridge council instructed staff to create a wildfire protection zone, but only after a 4-3 vote.
Staff are currently preparing a bylaw that will create permit areas requiring new homes built adjacent to forested areas to use fire-resistent walls, roofs and fire-smart landscaping. Ten-metre buffer areas would be required to separate new suburbs from forests.
Overall, the extra cost for each new home built near the forest should be about $5,000.
Couns. Mike Morden, Corisa Bell and Al Hogarth voted against the bylaw because they are worried about costs.
Daniels understands why politicians might be concerned about costs, but asks them to consider a “what-if” scenario.
“We see places like Slave Lake, where the fire burned right into the town. They had to make triage decisions on, ‘Should we save the town hall or the hospital?’”
Assuming a fire won’t happen is a false sense of security. That’s why it’s important to consider all the consequences of what it would cost should a wildfire tear through the community, she adds.
That means looking at the costs of fighting a fire, using a chemical fire retardant and crews digging trenches or fire breaks.
“They are very costly in terms of economics and in terms of the environment.”
On Tuesday, there were 130 wildfires burning across B.C. The biggest, near Burns Lake, has scorched 50,000 hectares.
Locally, the fire risk remains “high.” If temperatures stay steady, the risk could reach “extreme.”
Maple Ridge fire chief Dane Spence has been unable to lend any firefighters to the province’s wildfire fighting efforts because of the risk of a blaze starting locally.
So far, Maple Ridge has been able to proceed with a few of the recommendations in its wildfire protection plan. They include clearing brush to reduce the fire hazard on some municipal land and purchasing portable sprinkler units to soak roofs.
But Morden believes creating a development permit area won’t achieve the objectives of the wildfire protection plan.
“I am concerned about risk, but this whole wildfire development permit isn’t about life safety because we have sufficient measures in our building codes right now to keep everybody safe in their homes.”
He said that all new homes now require sprinklers. They won’t stop a wildfire, but would prevent anybody inside a home from being burned up, he adds.
“We can do all the works that are recommended [in the plan], but don’t have to put in a wildfire development permit.”
He insists the areas around Maple Ridge rarely reaches a “high” wild fire risk.
“This is rainy Haney for a reason.”
Morden, who’ll be seeking the mayor’s seat in November, is unlikely to support a bylaw to create the wildfire permit zone until he sees a detailed break-down of what it’s going to cost. He wants to know how the plan is going to affect developers, homeowners and, ultimately, taxpayers.
The wildfire plan adds bureaucracy, additional inspectors and the costs to keep clearing areas to reduce the fire risk.
“It’s an ongoing maintenance issue and it’s going to escalate costs for the taxpayer,” Morden said.
However, the Union of British Columbia Municipalities has a program that currently funds up to 90 per cent of that work to a maximum of $400,000 per municipality per calendar year.
Under the program, a municipality can receive $400,000 worth of wildland fuel treatment for a municipal cost of $40,000. UBCM will also pay up to 75 per cent of the costs to create a fuel management prescription program.
But it’s not only the costs to taxpayers that Morden is worried about. He believes the wildfire development permit zones will affect home values and drive up the costs of development, making housing unaffordable in Maple Ridge.
He said it’s not only developers who’ve expressed their disdain of the wildfire plan to him, but homeowners and taxpayers.
“It’s getting to be a very expensive world and taxpayers are done. They can’t pay anymore,” said Morden.
“Until I get a clear picture on the costs, top to bottom who it’s going to affect and why, I am not going to support it.”
Several residents remain concerned that Maple Ridge is stalling on implementing the recommendation of its wildfire protection plan.
Nicole Read, who lives in Silver Valley, is one of them.
Read and her neighbours realized they were sitting ducks amongst a forest in 2012 when four homes under construction in Formosa Plateau were engulfed by flames sparked by a construction worker.
Read wishes the wildfire development permit area was in place when she moved to Silver Valley in 2010.
She would rather have paid for upgrades such as fire-resistant roofing and siding when she purchased her home. Now, it’s just too expensive to install such materials herself.
“Of all the costs that get unnecessarily levied on homeowners, I’m thinking that’s one of the costs that people would be willing to pay for,” said Read.
She wants council to act quickly on fire-hardening the community.
“It really is concerning,” she said, adding that council should be deferring to the opinion of experts, such as the fire chief.
“The politicking is very disappointing. This shouldn’t have anything to do with politics, this should have to do with people’s safety. It leaves people unprotected, and I don’t think that’s fair.”