TERRY KEOUGH WAS AT HOME, working at his desk, when he was given a simple message: Get out. Now.
It had been a quiet afternoon up to that point—it usually was in Rock Creek, British Columbia. It was the middle of the dog days of summer—hot and dry, with temperatures regularly nearing 40 degrees Celsius. Across the river, campers spread out across picnic tables, enjoying the afternoon. It was the sort of day that Terry and his wife, Shannon, had imagined when they left the bustle of BC’s lower mainland more than a decade ago. Now they had a two-storey log home, guest cabin and matching workshop that Shannon used as her artist studio. It was all tucked into three acres of towering pines.
It was this lush forest that had drawn them to Rock Creek, a five-hour drive east of Vancouver. At fifty-five, Terry was finally eyeing retirement. A sales and marketing manager, he was now in a position where he could work from home and spend more time with his wife and their twin daughters, who are deaf and have autism spectrum disorder. “We had the idea that [the property] would be fully completed by the time we were sixty,” Terry explains. “So we could relax and enjoy it.”
The quiet afternoon was cut short when a neighbour came up the driveway, yelling. Terry got up from his desk, ran down the road and looked at the steep forested slopes to the west and the Kettle River—low, even for this time of year—to the east. Then he saw it: a wildfire less than a kilometre from the highway. The fire was blowing away from their home, but it was still too close for comfort.
In fifteen minutes, the Keoughs loaded their small pickup truck and sedan and, along with their cat and their daughters’ support worker, evacuated. They took a laptop, a couple of sleeping bags and their passports. They didn’t think they would need anything else. They were even forced to leave Leo, their pet goat, who proved too big and stubborn to get in the car. “I’m a big man,” Terry says. “And I couldn’t even tip that goat over.”
The Keough family left thinking they’d be back in a matter of hours. They thought they would be cautious and head across the Kettle River to watch the action from there. After all, the wind was blowing in the opposite direction of their home and the fire was still a long ways away. “With the crews working up there,” says Terry, “we didn’t think there was any chance it could get past them."
THREE HUNDRED AND THIRTY HOMES around Rock Creek were evacuated in the days following August 13, 2015. It was just one event in another banner year for wildfire. In all, approximately 7,068 fires burned nearly four million hectares across Canada in 2015, just shy of double the ten-year average. This record could soon be the new norm. The Canadian government predicts that the area affected by wildfire will increase by nearly 50 percent by 2040, and the Wildfire Management Branch of BC warns that uncontrollable “mega fires” will increase due to climate change. Often, uncontrollable wildfire appears to be an unpredictable force of nature or the result of human folly, but some experts argue that the reason so many fires are now burning in the first place is not a matter of chance or error, but the result of the accumulation of a century’s worth of headstrong forest management strategies.
Fire has long been seen as a sort of faceless monster. In the minds of many, it thieves, ravages and destroys our otherwise lush forests, and trespasses on our homes and communities. But fires have played an integral role in forest development for a far longer time than humans. Toddi Steelman, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability who researches fire policy, points out the fallacy inherent in our perception of fire as a menace. “Forests and trees are fire-dependent species; they need fire to survive,” she says. It is a conundrum she pointed out in a Globe and Mail op-ed in 2015. “Wildfire is one of the only natural hazards that we believe we can control,” she wrote. “We would never try to stop a tornado, hurricane or earthquake.”
Nevertheless, Canadians have been trying to put fires out as quickly as possible for the past century, mostly regardless of the cause or the effect. According to Natural Resources Canada, 90 percent of fires detected in 2010 were fought in some way. This fire suppression comes with a price tag ranging between $500 million and $1 billion each year. “It’s costing a fortune just to put these fires out and ecologically it’s not doing us any good,” says Bob Gray, a fire ecologist and former member of the board of directors at the Association for Fire Ecology. Steelman notes the same. In fact, she says that our fervent fighting of every spark, flame and hotspot may have actually made the forest more at risk—and more flammable—than if we had simply allowed fires to play a natural role in shaping the landscape.
OUR OBSESSION WITH PUTTING OUT WILDFIRES dates back to 1910, when a fire known as the Big Blowup spread across Washington, Idaho and Montana, charring 1.2 million hectares of forests and grasslands. It killed at least eighty-five people, most of them firefighters, and wiped away three small villages. When it was over, an estimated 7.5 billion board feet of valuable timber were reduced to ash—a devastating impact on the local industry. “Governments decided we can’t allow this to happen,” Gray says. “One, it’s killing people. Two, it’s endangering the nascent industries from getting off the ground.”
What followed, Gray says, was a program called “10 am control.” “If a fire was located on day one, the idea was that it would be put out by 10 am the next day,” he says. “That started what we call the fire-industrial complex.”
But fighting wildfires is expensive, and as the years passed, public support was in danger of waning when flames weren’t actively threatening lives and communities. The government began to release public service announcements to garner support. Bambi was an early mascot for wildfire prevention, loaned by Disney to the United States Forest Service in the 1940s. Some posters featured woodland critters pleading with the public (“please mister, don’t be careless,”) while others took a more combative approach, declaring forest fires to be “another enemy to conquer.” In 1942, wildfires were portrayed as a waste of valuable wartime resources. Posters featured Japanese soldiers snarling like Satan and holding matches to leafy forests. Underneath was a slogan: “Careless matches aid the Axis.”
In the subsequent decades, television and radio ads further elaborated on images of destruction. “Imagine a city laid waste by fire, city streets ravaged by a sea of flames, gutting buildings, destroying property, killing entire families. Hot tongues of flames searing flesh and tarring lungs that can’t cry for help,” proclaimed one public service announcement in the 1980s. The goal was to make people afraid. “[Fire was an] enemy threatening society, no different from al-Qaeda or ISIS,” Gray says.
But the government’s most popular PR strategy got its living mascot on June 27, 1950, when a small Piper Pacer aircraft departed from Santa Fe en route to Washington, DC. There was one special passenger on board: a five-pound black bear that sat on the lap of the pilot. The cub was an orphan. His mother had died, presumably in the flames that had spread across the Capitan Mountain Range of New Mexico. The little cub had climbed a tree to escape the heat, suffering severe burns on his paws and hind legs. Firefighters bandaged his wounds and notified the US Forest Service, which decided that he would become the living symbol of forest fire safety. They named him Smokey and gave him a message: “Only you can prevent wildfires!”
Smokey lived out the rest of his life in the National Zoo, where he received up to 13,000 letters per week, had his own zip code and ate from an automated honey dispenser shaped like a tree. When Smokey died in 1976, his obituary ran on the first page of the Wall Street Journal. Smokey and his message are still ubiquitous across North America, and, in Canada, his image is licensed to and managed by the Canadian Forestry Association.
Engrained in Smokey’s message is not only the idea that people can help prevent fires, but that, with vigilance, these fires could perhaps be eliminated altogether. While it’s true that people start fires, whether from abandoned campfires, cigarette butts or sparks from quads, the causes of fires across Canada today are bigger than our own carelessness. According to the Canadian government, human-caused fires are, on average, smaller and put out faster than their natural counterparts. Moreover, lightning causes over 80 percent of fire damage to Canadian forests. Regardless, Smokey’s message remains: we can and should prevent all fires at all times.
These decades of fire suppression have led to an enormous buildup of what fire technicians dub “fuel.” The understories of many of our forests are increasingly stacked with dead wood, drier each year as average temperatures increase with climate change. In some landscapes, it is no different from large heaps of kindling.
A strike of lightning or a careless match will not result in a catastrophic wildfire unless the conditions are ripe for one. In BC, fires historically burnt frequently and at a low intensity, reducing what the provincial government calls “ladder fuels”—the low-hanging branches, relatively young trees and other plants that, if they build up, burn and allow the fire “to climb like a ladder into the upper branches of the tree,” a phenomenon that leads to the higher-intensity fires that jump from treetop to treetop. Before putting out fires became the norm, this tangled anarchy of ladder fuels was burned regularly, slashing the chances of a huge out-of-control fire. A report prepared for the BC government on “Firestorm 2003,” a massive fire that tore through the Okanagan, put it in simple terms: “The more fuel there is, the harder the fire is to put out.” In our attempt to stop fires altogether, we’ve contributed to conditions that make larger fires more dangerous. As Gray says: “The more you put fire out, the worse it becomes.”
THE KEOUGHS HAD LEFT THEIR HOUSE feeling optimistic. But as they drove away and saw sparks shooting off the main fire with the veracity of fireworks, they started to get nervous.
About a kilometre away, on the other side of town, sixty-seven-year-old Patricia Henley was in her yard with a gin and tonic. She had seen the smoke earlier that afternoon, but, from the direction her laundry was blowing on the line, could tell the fire was moving away from town. “My daughter and I stood watching like it was on TV,” she says.
Henley, a retired elementary school teacher who grew up on a nearby ranch, has run an antique shop in Rock Creek for nine years. Her business is next to a gas station and across the road from another gas station. Then there’s the Trading Post coffee shop. Together, these four establishments constitute the bulk of downtown Rock Creek.
Henley’s house, nestled behind her business, was in the middle of renovations—it had flooded a few weeks earlier. On that August afternoon, she sent the two workers she’d hired to pull up her rotting floorboards home early; they would be the last ones to drive on Highway 3 before it was closed, flames licking at the sides of their pickup truck.
As Henley stood with her daughter watching the fire, there was a sense of calm. Then something switched. “All of the sudden the wind changed and the fire came running down the treetops,” says Henley. “It was like a firestorm.” A woman Henley didn’t recognize yelled that the gas station might explode, and told her to get out. Henley got in her car and left.
The whole town was given orders to evacuate, though some refused to leave. One of the Keoughs’ neighbours initially left, but canoed back to his home—with flames engulfing both sides of the river—so he could protect it himself. The man spent three days putting out small fires that started on his property. Another resident slept on his roof, telling reporters he’d rather “tough it out” with his hose than risk losing his home to flying debris and stray sparks. The Keoughs, however, obeyed the order. The family spent the first night in nearby Greenwood (also on alert for a potential evacuation due to another fire) and waited. They spent the next three days trying to get information about their home. They called neighbours, they checked at the Red Cross evacuation centre. There was no news.
Henley spent that first night in nearby Midway. Her son, daughter-in-law and son-in-law were all fighting the fire on the frontline, and when she finally spoke with her son, she remembers asking him if they still had a town. “I don’t know, Mum,” was all he could answer.
TO THE OFFICIALS TASKED with managing fires, the Keoughs’ family home and Henley’s antique store were, in the jargon-filled lexicon common in the wildfire-fighting community, just a few of the “values at risk.” The decision about whether to fight a wildfire or let it burn is almost always made based on “the values.” Houses, schools, campsites, businesses and power lines—these are all values.
Today, all across the Canadian wilderness, there are more values than ever. At the same time as people are increasingly drawn to the woods to live, industrial activity has expanded throughout the forests, making the decision to let a fire burn increasingly rare. Technically, the government does stipulate that, in more remote zones, fires can be left to burn unless they approach “high-value areas.” However, a BC wildfire fighter I interviewed summed up the conundrum: “Now there’s just not really that many areas of the province that aren’t of value to someone.”
As I drove the Crowsnest Highway that passes through Rock Creek, I mentally checked the boxes on the values I spotted. Some were obvious, such as the new homes tucked into the woods in the high, scrubby landscape outside Osoyoos. En route from Vancouver, I drove past the Copper Mountain Mine; the striated core of the Similkameen Valley looked like the colourful layers of a just-sliced birthday cake. I stopped for fuel at a remote gas station and noticed the power lines running parallel to the highway, connecting remote small towns to the grid. All values.
The landscape along the road was varied, but much of it was forested. Every passing kilometre was seemingly punctuated with plot after plot of cut blocks, each displaying a different level of stubble—uniform, jagged, newly planted growth poking out of the clumped, muddy face of the earth. Then, at the Vaagen sawmill outside of Rock Creek, I noticed heaps of stripped tree trunks. I checked off another box. In this part of Canada, even the trees themselves count as values.
CANADA HAS 348 MILLION HECTARES OF FOREST, much of which would have burned on a natural cycle before we started aggressively putting out fires. According to Edward Johnson, a wildfire ecologist at the University of Calgary, fires burned on a regular basis when the forest reached an age when it was in need of what’s known as a “disturbance.” This would allow it to reset and regrow. “Forests expect fire; they expect disturbance,” he says.
Under a more natural cycle, small fires would occur, charring tree trunks, burning dried grasses and branches on the forest floor, and setting the scene for the survival of various species that depend on fire in one way or another: the beetles that only lay their eggs in recently burned logs; the black-backed woodpecker, which feed on the beetles; the lodgepole pine, which has evolved to release its seeds when the extreme heat from a fire melts the wax-like substance that binds its pinecones together. Old, disease-prone trees would be recycled back into the ground—refreshing the landscape and making way for new specimens and different species to grow and thrive in their place.
If we were purely interested in ecology, we might let more fires burn, allowing smaller fires to sift through stands of forest and cull the more fire-prone trees. “The difference is that we have interests in these trees now,” says Johnson. Two-thirds of Canada’s forests are actively managed by private companies, much of them for timber. In many cases, the trees themselves represent a dollar value, meaning that the chances that a fire will burn for ecological reasons are fairly slim—nowadays, the BC government boasts that the vast majority of fires reported within the province are put out within twenty-four hours.
In most instances, the forestry companies responsible for harvesting merchantable timber are tasked with making management—and stewardship—decisions for our forests. One of these stewards is Weyerhaeuser, known worldwide for its sales of wood and paper products. The company netted over $7 billion in sales in 2015 and is one of the world’s largest private owners of timberlands—it has a stake in more than 4.6 million hectares of forested land in Canada. The vast majority of these hectares is Crown land, owned by the people of the province within whose borders it falls. This land—and the forest on it—is leased by timber companies for the right to harvest the trees, referred to as “stock” within the industry.
The federal government states that Canada has more forest per capita than many other countries, at about ten hectares per person. But as I drove past cut-block after cut-block on the highway to Rock Creek, I wondered if this is the “forest” as we picture it. Less like a jungle—in the wild, idyllic sense of the word—each plot is managed, harvested and re-stocked on a regular rotation. I got the strange feeling that the forest here was more like wheat fields divided into quarter-sections in Saskatchewan. Each plot I passed was distinct: identical one-year-old seedlings lined up in rows in one plot; farther down, a wall of taller trees formed an edge where a crop of older, identical Douglas fir or lodgepole pine reached their needled arms to the sky, capped at the same height as though they hit a glass ceiling. It’s an odd feeling looking at such managed growth, wilderness designed and arranged like squares on a quilt.
Nevertheless, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines timber stock as forest at all stages, even when it is stacked on the ground. In fact, it states that, “land that temporarily has no trees is still considered to be a forest.”
WHEN TIMBER COMPANIES such as Weyerhaeuser cut down a crop of trees (which occurs every sixty to one hundred years), they seek to “emulate natural patterns on the landscape,” according to Wendy Crosina, manager of forest stewardship at the timber giant. Like Johnson, Crosina describes the lifecycle of a forest as one that is punctuated by disturbances. Timber companies have sought to replace insects, storms and wildfires, which move the ecosystem from one phase of lifecycle to the next, with “surrogate disturbance agents” that they can control—mainly, harvesting.
When I drove the Crowsnest highway, there was no shortage of evidence of these surrogate disturbance agents—muddy plots that had been recently cleared, now planted with identical seedlings in rows—clearly not wild, but still technically a forest according to the FAO. In Bob Gray’s words, trees are planted and “lined up like cans of peaches.”
In this system, natural processes such as fire are basically eliminated from the equation. In fact, the timber company’s system all but relies on putting out wildfires immediately. Fire can represent significant losses to the industry if it burns through an area where trees are at their optimal age for harvest, Crosina says. But even less mature trees represent a loss. “If we’ve got a stand that is thirty years or forty or fifty years old that will be harvested in the next ten to twenty years, and we planted that, there’s a loss there for us as well because we’re going to have to find that timber somewhere else for us to harvest,” she says. “And we’ve also invested money in planting and restocking already.”
I ask Gray how we can we hope to allow forest fires to burn if some of the most powerful voices are saying that the trees themselves are too valuable to go up in smoke. “You’re tackling parts of the landscape where the economics are driving the ship,” he says. “We have a fixation with trees. They support the timber industry and lots of jobs and lots of revenue. You can’t have a natural fire regime, especially one that is being driven now by climate change, and this huge forest industry. It just clashes.”
Companies including Weyerhaeuser state that they’re committed to being stewards of the forest, that they practice what Crosina describes as “ecosystem basis management,” a system that seeks to closely mimic “what was there before.” But, with our history of planting and cutting trees, what was there before is often just another cut block of managed growth. As Gray puts it: the forest has been picked over for a century. “We’re setting up these static entities on the landscape that are not fire tolerant and protecting them so someone can see a profit down the road, and that’s costing us. And it’s costing us more and more every year,” says Gray.
Even though timber values are often an important factor in deciding to fight a fire, forestry companies are not themselves in charge of fighting fires that threaten their stands; rather, the responsibility—and cost—of fire suppression falls to the provincial government. “Those areas—whether they’re tree plantations for timber or pulp, or plantations for carbon offsets—those are privately held. That profit accrues to [the company], but the risk accrues to the taxpayer,” says Gray.
Gray advocates for stricter regulations on those that profit from the harvest. Gray and Toddi Steelman both advocate a specific management strategy as a way to restore fire in ecosystems without the risk of catastrophe: prescribed burning. These intentional fires, started under controlled circumstances, burn off some of the dead wood laying on the forest floor, and allow for trees and other plants to grow anew. Gray suggests that even if provincial governments had to subsidize prescribed burning in order to make it feasible for forestry companies, it would still be worthwhile—burning off piles of dead wood left behind after clear-cutting and reducing the mess of branches and stumps that can be fodder for wildfires in future years.
But prescribed burning isn’t currently required of forestry companies. And, with companies like Weyerhaeuser planting 15.5 million tree seedlings each year in Canada, the benefits that come with wildfires aren’t necessarily a priority. But Gray asserts that prescribed burning could benefit timber companies in other ways, if not for the sake of ecology. “There are a lot of cost-saving benefits. If you prescribe burn after you’ve logged, and the burn was done well, you don’t have any fear you’re going to lose your plantation in the next ten or fifteen years,” he says. When I ask Crosina why Weyerhaeuser doesn’t burn after logging, her answer is simple: “Public perception.” After decades of advertisements warning us of the perils of flames, our fear of wildfire in any shape or size still lingers.
PATRICIA HENLEY WAS ABLE TO VISIT her home in Rock Creek the day after she was evacuated. The fire had stopped short of the gas station, her antique store and her house. As president of a local community organization, the police let her back into town each day to talk to people. She says she fielded some 250 calls from concerned neighbours in the day after the fire started, all wanting to know if she could see their houses from her side of the evacuation line. She tried to give them answers the best she could. She wasn’t allowed into the burned area, but with the steep walls of the valley rising up to the west, she was able to see some of the damage from her yard.
Four days after the fire started, the Keoughs were frustrated by the lack of information. They snuck around a road closure on the opposite side of the river from their property, hoping to catch a glimpse of their family home. Looking through binoculars, what they managed to see through the smoke confirmed what they had never imagined a few days earlier. Their log home, Shannon’s workshop, their shed, all of it had burned. The mobile home they had set up for their twin daughters appeared to have survived, but the rest of their treed property was black and bare. “[It was] like someone wiped a cloth across a counter, cleaning crumbs off,” Terry says.
When they were eventually allowed back to their property for a few minutes on Tuesday, Terry and Shannon surveyed the damage. There was barely a trace of their house; even the oven and refrigerator had been incinerated in the heat. A ten-foot aluminum ladder that had been leaning against a wall was reduced to a flat puddle. Their cast-iron wood stove was partially melted. A metal sink had survived.
As they continued the tour of their property, a small bleat could be heard. Leo the goat was standing patiently next to a partially collapsed gate—there was no longer a fence attached to it. “He was a little bit singed here and there,” says Terry, “and his voice is a bit hoarse.” The Keoughs were overwhelmed, unable to understand how their pet goat had survived when everything else was destroyed.
THE ROCK CREEK FIRE consumed forty-five buildings—not an insignificant number in such a small town. But it was a minuscule amount of damage compared with what was in store for Western Canada in 2016. In May, a fire started near Fort McMurray, forcing the evacuation of some 90,000 people and eventually destroying roughly 2,400 buildings. Images of burned homes, charred vehicles and flames running along treetops dominated the news for weeks.
Gray says that the “charged words” and images of “walls of flames” often used in the media have created a sensational—and often inaccurate—public image of wildfire. “We call it fire porn,” he says. I ask Gray how we can learn to live with fire when we have homes nestled into the woods and industry spread throughout the forest. He tells me that while it’s possible, we need to allow ourselves the space to plan for wildfires to occur. “The reality,” he says, “is we have to find some way to live with fire, not only with wildfires but with prescribed fires—putting a bit of smoke in the air and people not complaining.”
One of the necessary forest management tools he advocates for are called fuel breaks. Essentially, they are buffer zones within the forest formed by creating a swath between stands of trees, a bit like a moat. This swath could be an area that has been burned on purpose to reduce the amount of dry, dead wood on the ground. It could also be cleared by hand, or planted with species that are less likely to catch fire, such as trembling aspen, which Gray says is “like asbestos.” Gray advocates for a management plan that seeks to reduce the risk of catastrophe. He’s pragmatic about his approach, recognizing that because so much of the forest in Western Canada is earmarked for industry or chock full of “values,” there are few places wildfires will be left to burn. His approach, then, advocates placing responsibility on governments and timber companies to ensure that the blocks of forest under their control are not overly susceptible to fires.
In this more ideal forest management system, according to Gray, uniform blocks of trees earmarked for timber would be separated by swaths of fuel breaks. This, however, would mean a reduction in the area available for harvesting. What companies and governments need to do, he says, is scale back expectations for the forestry industry as an employer and revenue source. “If we start setting up larger areas as permanent fuel breaks, then we’re reducing the amount of volume we can potentially harvest. And that’s going to have an impact. But the reality is that we can’t continue with this overstocked landscape and this huge protection apparatus and this huge cost. It’s unsustainable,” he says. “That’s going to be a very difficult political decision. Some communities will be winners, some communities will be losers.”
The forestry industry in BC accounts for roughly 30 percent of the province’s exports, and is responsible for some 5 percent of its total GDP, which was approximately $237 billion in 2014. Across the country, the harvesting and milling of trees adds $20 billion annually to the economy. The provincial governments, Gray says, are in a tough position due to the timber licences they have given out. “The places where you need to put a fuel break, it’s somebody’s chart, or somebody’s licence,” he says.
According to Crosina, Weyerhaeuser does take steps to prevent out-of-control mega-fires. “We try to harvest old fire-prone stands sooner rather than later, and as a part of that we try to create fire breaks in the topography. That’s the primary strategy that’s available to us,” she says. But a few voluntary fire breaks are not enough to make a big change without stricter regulation, Gray tells me.
WITH WILDFIRES BREAKING RECORDS and setting new norms, many towns and cities are taking note. While the provinces’ and forestry industry’s past century of land management practices have exacerbated the problem by attempting to eliminate wildfires, local communities are making plans to try to survive these disasters intact. In May, Whistler announced that it was removing trees above a subdivision and thinning out overgrown brush for fear of a wildfire ripping through the town, fuelled by decorative trees. In Whitecourt, Alberta, officials announced that the fire department was purchasing large sprinkler systems that can be attached to roofs if a fire is threatening the edge of the community. “You just hook them up to a garden hose and go,” fire chief Brian Wynn explains. The town is also selling the sprinklers to locals. “So many residents live in the country, there’s no way we’d be able to get to them all,” says Wynn.
Taking steps to prevent damage during a disaster instead of trying to eliminate the disaster altogether may mean changes to the way we build our structures, says Johnson. He notes that some communities in California require a marking on a person’s mailbox showing whether an owner has taken steps to fireproof their home. If they have, fire crews will try to fight a fire on their property; if not, they’ll likely stand back and watch it burn. Meanwhile, the northern Alberta town of Swan Hills has instituted a bylaw requiring every building to have a fireproof roof, one that won’t catch fire from a falling ember or a stray spark.
In Rock Creek, a FireSmart program, created by the BC government, teaches residents how to make their homes less susceptible to wildfires. It includes a self-assessment that homeowners can complete, asking things such as: are your eavestroughs clogged with dry pine needles? Is your roof covered with cedar shakes? Is there a wooden fence connected to your house? “It was only after the fire that people started talking about things like that,” Henley says. “[Now] a lot of people are attending the meetings. We all know we shouldn’t be piling our firewood against the wall, but we did it [before]. It was a real wake-up call for us.”
Aside from suggestions on how to weather the storm, federal and provincial governments are still largely focused on fire elimination instead of fire preparedness. Since 2004, only $78 million has been earmarked by the BC government for wildfire mitigation, going to municipalities and First Nations groups to fireproof their communities. This amount is relatively small, compared to the $277 million the province spent on fire suppression in 2015, a number Gray and his colleagues say vastly underestimates the true cost of wildfires, as it neglects lost property, lost infrastructure, health effects and lost revenue, among others. It’s also minuscule when compared to the $1 billion the province has spent to ensure that schools are resistant to earthquakes—with another $560 million on the way. It seems that the approach to dealing with wildfire still is along the lines of, Hope it doesn’t happen, and if it does, hope we can put it out.
THE KEOUGHS REMEMBER the sort of conversations about fire prevention that happened in Rock Creek before August 13: there were none. Nobody was talking about it. Much like provincial governments across Western Canada, they were, as Patricia Henley put it, “living on borrowed time.”
The trees lining the highway near the Keoughs’ property are still charred and black—stripped, limbless poles. The family doesn’t plan on rebuilding, though they know some plants are already green again and new trees are on their way. “So much of our spare time and resources were going into making the property exactly what we wanted so we could relax on it one day,” says Terry. Rather than reinvesting in another home in the trees, the Keoughs are out on the road for a four-month RV trip across the north. It was something they always planned to do, someday, once Terry retired. This time around, they don’t want to delay.
The last time we spoke, they were in Dawson City and weren’t sure where they’d go next. “[We want to] live more full lives, not put all our time getting something ready for five years from now,” says Terry. “Our perspective has completely changed,” he says.
“It’s pointless to put stuff off.”