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MLAs from Lakes, Quesnel want state of emergency

A declaration would trigger help for those with fire losses
Wildfire in Trout Creek Hall (Brian Imus photos/Lakes District News)

Wildfire burn records are set to fall, with the forest burning in almost every sector of the B.C. map.

It is the kind of situation that can trigger a state of emergency. Two of B.C.’s Interior MLAs are openly calling for a declaration to be made, while a third B.C. riding received a small-scale one already. The Stikine region got the state of emergency stamp on July 10. Once issued, the state of emergency is initially in effect for 14 days and may be extended.

It’s time to go province-wide, said Cariboo North’s Coralee Oakes, as the area west of her Quesnel hometown is bathed in smoke and flames on several fronts.

“It feels a little bit like deja vu…oh my gosh, are we back in 2017?,” Oakes told Black Press. “Here’s what’s changed. We have lots of experience. We have been through this before. People have a lot of insight into what needs to happen. We’ve got this. We just need a little of flexibility and to activate some of those lessons learned. The first thing, right now, immediately, we need to be raising the alarm bells for our agriculture sector. Going into this wildfire season, we already knew we were in drought conditions. Crop outputs have been low. We were already in dire circumstances there. The fires are on critical range, farmers are trying to hay what they can, it’s going to have some pretty devastating long-term consequences.”

Why? Because ranchers won’t be able to feed their cattle over winter, with rangeland (the bush areas where cows eat during the summer) compromised by fire and hay supply a failure. Selling off a significant amount of cattle en masse will cause prices across the province to drop, so the ranchers will get a poor amount of money in their pocket while hindering their herd revenues for untold years into the future, “because it takes many years to rebuild a herd once you sell a lot of it off,” Oakes said.

That’s why, said Nechako Lakes representative John Rustad - his riding straddles both Stikine and Cariboo North - there should actually be two states of emergency declared.

“One is the fire, your immediate emergency,” said Rustad.

“The second state of emergency is ranchers facing a real crisis, right now, because not only is wildfire affecting their range and in some cases fields, but because of the drought conditions, yields are coming back 10-30 per cent what they would normally be. What that means is, all these ranchers can’t feed their cattle through the winter and there will be a big sell-off.”

The declaration of a state of emergency, both MLAs explained, is not just a big headline. It triggers federal government back-up. Money is made available that isn’t normally there. Extra human resources can kick in, like foreign wildfire fighters deployed to help, and the military stood up for wildfire duty.

Mostly, though, the state of emergency allows for insurance programs to kick in for farmers. But not usually retroactively. Therefore, it is important for the declaration to be made as soon as possible to cover as much of the burning that is yet to come, and hope a case can be made, farmer by farmer, acting alone and usually desperately, to get some sort of compensation for losses to fields, plantations, barns and shops, water supplies, livestock living areas, sometimes even burned animals.

Oakes said she has had meetings on this topic with the minister responsible for emergency readiness, Bowinn Ma, with positive dialogue. Now Oakes is hoping for the required action, because “I have binders full” of past cases she expects will have to be repeated, where local farmers and ranchers fall through the cracks and MLAs like herself and Rustad have to go to bat time and again for suffering food producers hanging onto their homes and livelihoods by a charred thread.

“The programs set up to support the agricultural sector…a lot of our mom-and-pop producers (which makes up the bulk of all ranchers and farmers in the B.C. interior) don’t often fit the criteria,” Oakes said.

In other words, our farmers are getting hammered by the weather, the climate and on-the-ground emergencies but don’t qualify for government insurance policies because they are too small. Most respite programs are for huge operators.

There have been some improvements in fighting the fires, said Rustad. He said, “They are actually now deploying mass water deliver systems,” which were controversially not deployed well in 2018 when the province last suffered a province-wide wildfire campaign. “Communication has improved. But I’m still hearing stories about crews getting delayed getting in, equipment they can’t figure out how to deploy… Fighting fires is not easy, I get that, but we’re still getting some of the same stories.”

The next chapter, the MLAs said, should be titled A State Of Emergency Has Been Declared.

Wildfire out of control at Tout Creek Hall (Brian Imus photos/Lakes District News)