Risk of forest fire too high for festival approval

To my surprise, the representatives of CVRD smugly shrugged off the concerns voiced by members of the community

The CVRD has before it a proposal to amend a bylaw that would allow the development of a large campground and music festival to be built on the side of the mountain near Youbou. While there may be some merits to this proposal — people enjoying music in the woods — the CVRD has not taken the broader ramifications of this development with the seriousness it deserves.

I wrote to members of the CVRD expressing my concerns in October. Hoping to have some of my concerns addressed, I attended a question and answer meeting on Dec. 7 in Youbou. To my surprise, the representatives of CVRD smugly shrugged off the concerns voiced by members of the community about noise levels, traffic congestion, environmental impacts, etc. But most worrisome was that when the CVRD representatives were asked if they had initiated an independent catastrophic fire study before evaluating the benefits and costs of the new development their answer was another smug “No”. And in this the CVRD is demonstrating a potentially tragic hubris.

My initial letter to the CVRD pointed out that no less authorities than NASA, the U.S. National Climate Assessment, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. National Interagency Fire Center, and several universities have all arrived at the same conclusion:

“This is the present, and the future, of climate change. Our overheated world is amplifying drought and making megafires commonplace.

“This is happening even in the soggy Pacific Northwest, which has been hard-hit by what’s been dubbed a “wet drought.”

“The wildfires in eastern Oregon and Washington devoured an area nearly the size of Delaware.

“The fiery future is upon us. Pervasive drought and record temperatures — July was the warmest month ever physically recorded on planet Earth — have turned forests from Fresno to Fairbanks into tinderboxes.

“But the dark reality is that significant future burning has already been locked in.

“In parts of the west, very large fires will increase sixfold by midcentury.

“This year’s combination of warm winter, low snowpack, early runoff, hot summer and fire is straight from the textbook — a good preview — of what climate models tell us will soon be commonplace. So what does that mean on the ground? Instead of a once-in-20-years event, the type of megafires now ravaging Oregon and Washington could be expected to occur one year out of every two.” (Rolling Stone, Sept. 15, 2015)

And if one might think that B.C. can escape the possible megafire scenario consider this past summer in which the province experienced 171 fires of note (over 10 hectares), saw more than 300,000 hectares burn, spent twice the 10 year average fighting fires, and had to bring in over 300 firefighters, some from as far away as Australia and South Africa.

And this past summer we had our share of significant local fires: the Sproat Lake fire in which ash fell on Lake Cowichan, the Skutz Falls fire, and the Lizard Lake Fire in August, which on at least two days blanketed the town of Lake Cowichan with smoke so thick the mountains on all sides weren’t visible.

Now consider the proposed development before the CVRD: to locate a new campground/music festival off Highway 18, up the side of a mountain. The plan calls for 300 permanent campsites, 3,000 special event camping spaces and the arrival of 5,000 vehicles a day on the days of the big music event with as many as 40,000 people.

At this point the proposal calls for 15 big special event days.

Is this not a recipe for disaster? With so many people and vehicles crowded into such an inaccessible area how can people living in town and staying at the campsite possibly be evacuated safely in case of a forest fire? How will the fire trucks get access? And consider what the developer’s own fire study reported on the proposed location: “(f)uel loading is moderate-high as a result of more or less continuous coniferous forest cover. Under warm dry conditions, a fire started at the property or at nearby lands would likely spread rapidly to the north. Outflow winds would exacerbate ignition potential and rate of speed.” It goes on to find, “Scoring from the WUI Wildfire Threat Rating system and associated risk assessment modelling tools rate the Wildfire Threat at High/Extreme at the subject properties.” (Strathcona report).

It’s one thing for the project’s developer to downplay the risk of forest fire and to put forward their own fire plan that includes, among other things, “incorporating fire-resistive native shrubs”, “working smoke alarms”, and “during the fire season (April-October) …: ‘No smoking’” signs. It’s quite another for the CVRD to sit on its hands when so many lives are at stake.

I suggest that until the CVRD can reassure the citizens of Cowichan Valley beyond any doubt that their safety in terms of forest fires, now and in the future, has been addressed, the bylaw amendment for this development must be put aside.

 

Michael Colwell

Lake Cowichan

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