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When B.C.’s Wildfires Are Over, What Comes Next?

British Columbians have been suffering through some of the worst wildfires in memory. These latest fires are turning out to be even more devastating than the horrible 2003 Kelowna fires that saw more than 27,000 residents displaced and the loss of 239 homes in B.C.’s lake country.

It’s hard to overstate the impacts of this latest wildfire disaster: as of last week, more than 45,000 people had been displaced or evacuated. While some of them have been able to return home, they’ll be returning to the tragic sight of burned down homes and a whopping 4,000-plus square kilometers of burned forest. The wildfires this summer have been so severe that the province declared a state of emergency for the first time since the Kelowna fires.

And now of course we have a blanket of smoke over most of the province. Flying into Vancouver airport last night, I couldn’t help but think about the impact this must be having on our tourism industry, both right now and in the long term.

Imagine saving for years to come to Vancouver and looking out as your plane lands at billowing smoke on mountaintops and a smoky haze dark enough to almost block out the sun?!

Now imagine that same tourist getting on a bus or another smaller plane to go up north to do some hiking and fishing into the heart of the Cariboo where entire areas remain under major wildfire threat.

Tourism is one of B.C.’s biggest industries — it generated $15.7 billion in revenue in 2015, making it a bigger part of the province’s economy than oil and gas, mining, forestry or fishing.

Tourism operators are already seeing the impact of the wildfires, sometimes from evacuations or billowing smoke, but also in in areas not directly affected — there’s talk of vacation plan cancellations across the province. That leads to a whole other set of challenges in B.C. As the owner of a rafting business put it to the Vancouver Sun, “I’ll probably be laying off most of my staff if (the situation) can’t turn around in the immediate future.”

It doesn’t stop there.

Even the process of fighting fires can have unintended consequences. B.C. is dropping a record amount of chemical fire retardant from planes to keep the flames under control. Those chemicals are generally safe, but they are potentially toxic to fish. We have to use them to protect people’s homes, but the more we do, the greater the risk to B.C.’s fish and water resources. Any damage to our freshwater systems is a not only an ecological risk, but further erodes our identity as an outdoor tourism destination.

The Puntzi Lake wildfire grew to over 8,000 hectares in 2015. Photo: B.C. Wildfire Service

Right now, the focus is rightly on immediate relief — keeping people out of harm’s way, controlling the flames, and getting everyone back into their homes. But in the long term our province will no doubt need economic support, like taxpayer relief programs for tourism operators and businesses.

When we get past the present emergency, B.C. needs to think long and hard about the next one. Because it’s coming, and probably sooner than we think.

The world is experiencing more and more severe fires. This summer has also seen fires threaten one Spain’s most famous parks, and in the western U.S., climate change has doubled the amount of forest lost to wildfires over the last 30 years.

Canada isn’t immune.

As experts have pointed out, the three most catastrophic fires in modern Canadian history have all come in the past two decades and more communities will surely burn in the coming decade. The current wildfires may have taken B.C. by surprise, but the heat and dryness that cause them is becoming the new normal due to global warming (check out CBC’s excellent new podcast 2050: Degrees of Change for a visceral look at how B.C. will be changed by climate change in the next 30 years).

That means more communities at risk and more evacuations. Canada needs to be smarter about how we manage wildfires with better forest management.

We also need to recognize the links between forest management and climate policies. Hotter, drier summers are the reality we now find ourselves in. And it is a reality that scientists have been telling our elected officials to prepare for now for quite some time.

Image: Firefighter surveys a B.C. wildfire in 2015. Photo: B.C. Wildfire Service

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