Kootenay, British Columbia, qualifies for C$4M in wildfire mitigation grants, but new rules requiring local governments contribute 25% make C$5M project too expensive, says district official

TRAIL, British Columbia , April 10, 2012 () – If a tree is thinned in the forest, does anyone pay — so wonders the regional district.

With the province requiring regional district governments and municipalities across the province to now pay 25 per cent of the cost of wildfire interface mitigation, the price tag for forest fire safety may be too high for most areas to bear, says the chair of the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary board of directors.

Larry Gray said there is a further $5 million worth of work that needs to be done this year to diminish the chance of a forest fire spreading into settled areas within the three Kootenay regional districts.

But now having to cough up over $1 million between the regional districts of Central Kootenay, Kootenay Boundary and East Kootenay after the province changed the rules of the game is not feasible, he said, even if it means nearly $4 million in fuel mitigation grants from the province.

“We qualify for the grants, we have been approved for the grants, but we can’t afford the grants,” Gray said. “We can’t afford the grants because we don’t have enough money; and to raise the taxes to cover that is a huge, huge amount.”

Last month directors from the three Kootenay districts met with Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Steve Thomson on what could become a huge problem if the districts are unable to continue with forest fire mitigation.

With wildfire potential threatening every corner of the Kootenays, they asked the minister and his staff to come up with some solutions to the funding dilemma for a region that will not be participating in the province’s fuel management programs this year, Gray said.

Although it was not a positive reception from the ministry it wasn’t an outright refusal to help, Gray said. The ministry acknowledged discussion between the Provincial Fuels Management Working Group (comprised of the Union of B.C. Municipalities, provincial Wildfire Management Branch and the First Nations Emergency Services Society) and regional district representatives in the Kootenays was still ongoing.

In an email in response to questions, they admitted changes introduced last June have created some challenges — especially for some regional districts — and have agreed to continue to sit down with the affected parties to see if anything can be done to address concerns.

“Any further changes will have to be fair and equitable for all B.C. municipalities in the province,” the email read.

Gray said ministry staff had intimated they were opposed to showing favouritism in one area of the province over the others.

In practice, there should be firebreaks built around each community, the forest thinned out and no trees touching each other, said Gray. Most Kootenay communities don’t have this completed yet, he added.

“This is a big problem. The governance is a difficulty,” he said.

In order to move ahead with funding the fuel mitigation program under the new formula, Central Kootenay and East Kootenay would have to create services for taxation purposes to fund their 25 per cent share.

In the Kootenay Boundary, they would only have to increase taxation through the existing protective services service to cover their costs.

The amount of money available to local governments has been reduced in the area of fuel management prescriptions — a planning process that identifies and describes the type of treatment needed.

Last June the cost sharing formula, previously funded entirely by the province’s Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative, but administered by UBCM, was changed to require municipalities to contribute 25 per cent of the cost fuel management planning.

At the time, the change was made to free up money for operational treatments including thinning, spacing, pruning and the removal of woody debris from forest floors, the most costly aspect of wildfire prevention in interface areas.

At the same time, the funding for operational treatments increased from the previous 75-25 split between the province and local government to 90 per cent provincial and 10 per cent municipal for the first $100,000. Cost-sharing over and above $100,000 remained at the previous 75:25 ratio to a maximum of $400,000.

In addition, the province increased its share of funding for fuel management demonstration projects to 75 per cent from 50 per cent. Demo projects are typically small-scale treatments aimed at increasing public awareness and testing equipment and techniques prior to embarking large-scale projects

Based on advice from the Filmon Report, the Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative was started in 2004 with $37 million in from the federal and provincial governments. In April 2011, the province provided an additional $25 million.

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