Kootenay wildfire dispute still simmering

Four prescription burns in the RDCK are on hold while local politicians haggle with the province over funding.

Four prescription burns in the Regional District of Central Kootenay are on hold while local politicians haggle with the province over funding.

The provincial government has already approved its share of the projects near Boswell, Edgewood, Harrop/Procter, and Arrow Creek, intended to reduce the risk of wildfire spreading from forests to communities.

But the regional district balked this week at picking up $110,000 of the $459,000 price tag, following a rule change last year that puts local government on the hook for 10 per cent of projects under $100,000 and 25 per cent above it. Previously, the province paid the whole shot.

Another 20 burns in high priority areas are expected to cost $2 million to $3 million.

Regional district chair John Kettle says they can’t easily come up with their portion.

“We don’t have money we can grab out of thin air to help these prescriptions,” he says. “Are they sorely needed? You bet. All our water systems and watersheds are at risk.”

Kettle says a dedicated tax service to fund their share does not exist, although it might be accomplished through an existing service.

Last month the chairs of the three Kootenay regional districts — who call their areas “among the highest risk for wildfire in the province” — met with Forests Minister Steve Thomson to seek solutions.

“The current funding formula has greatly limited our ability to actively engage in interface fuel treatments, and has stretched our budgets and staff resources,” they told Thomson in a letter.

“Without necessary restructuring, this important program will lose political support, and as a result, we believe Kootenay communities will be placed at risk.”

The Regional District of Kootenay Boundary has pulled out of the program, while RDCK chair Kettle and Arrow Lakes director Paul Peterson put projects in their areas in “abeyance.”

East Shore director Garry Jackman and rural Nelson director Ramona Faust did the same this week. Jackman called it a “strategic position.”

“We’d be foolish to undertake this without the money in hand,” he said.

Rural Castlegar director Andy Davidoff said it didn’t take long after his election to realize wildfire risk is a “huge” issue.

“It’s a travesty for our government to offer a program and place such limitations on it that we can’t protect our citizens,” he said.

Administrator Jim Gustafson agreed protecting citizens is “the most important thing a government can do,” but added the projects have hidden costs, including administration and hiring consultants and contractors.

Regional districts are expected to absorb those costs, he said, and there is no contingency if the projects go over budget.

Kettle is optimistic the forests ministry will come back with changes to make the program more acceptable to regional districts, and believes their message came across loud and clear.

“That’s a heavyweight deal when you bring in three regional districts at once and we all agree,” he said. “I think we got their attention. [Thomson] was concerned something they felt was really good is not being implemented the way they thought.”

The RDCK is also bringing a motion before the Association of Kootenay Boundary Local Governments asking the province to pick up the full tab for fuel management projects.