B.C. ranchers suffer as fires persist

British Columbia remains in a state of emergency, first declared on Aug. 15, as 542 fires continue to burn.

About 58 fires are either highly visible or pose a potential threat public safety.

This year has officially become the second largest fire season on record for the province.

The number and extent of fires is particularly intense in an area west of Prince George and north of Bella Coola, in the province’s west-central region, but wildfires are also burning east of Vancouver, the northern part of Vancouver Island, near Kelowna and at various points along the U.S. border, according to B.C Wildfire Service maps.

The provincial government reports about 2.3 million acres have burned since April 1, the start of wildfire season.

Kevin Boon, general manager of the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association, said rain and cooler temperatures on the weekend likely helped the fire situation but the toll taken on B.C. ranchers continues and their effects won’t be tallied until much later.

As of Aug. 26, he estimated fires had affected 10,000 to 15,000 cattle.

“So far, we don’t think we’ve got too many mortalities,” said Boon. “We think there’s certainly some in that first Snowy Mountain fire….”

The Snowy Mountain fire south of Keremeos, B.C., began July 17 and had burned an estimated 33,000 acres as of Aug. 27.

Across the province, Boon said 3,000 to 4,000 head of cattle were moved out by truck ahead of fires but it is grazing season and the ranges are vast, making it virtually impossible to round up and move all cattle in fire zones.

As for ranchers’ homes, Boon said he knows some homes and farm structures have been lost but specifics are scarce and expected to remain so until fires are brought under control.

Though wildfires are devastating regardless of location, Boon said he thinks fewer farms and ranches will be affected this year compared to last year simply due to fire locations.

“Last year it was a little different in that when the fires started, they started right in the middle of ranching country and they started big. These have started very small and grown, so it’s given us a little more opportunity for evacuations and stuff like that.

“This year we were almost a month later before the fires really got rocking and rolling.”

A permitting process is being used this year to allow ranchers and others to temporarily access areas under evacuation order so they can care for their animals and tend to other necessary tasks. That process began last year, after many people defied evacuation orders to look after livestock, diverting resources from fire-fighting to insuring human safety.

Boon said the first fires of the season weren’t in cattle country but that changed about three weeks ago as the number of blazes increased.

He added that experience gained during last year’s horrible fire season has resulted in better communication this year with those affected. A person with agricultural knowledge was placed in each emergency operation centre, “which really helped a lot.”

As well, he thinks assistance will be available to ranchers who sustain losses from the fires.

“I’m pretty optimistic that we’ll have a very similar type program as last year. I just don’t think it will require quite as much money as last year, because we haven’t seen quite as many ranches hit. But I guess that remains to be seen,” said Boon.

The federal-provincial agri-recovery program was used extensively last year.

On Aug. 23, federal agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay and B.C. agriculture minister Lana Popham issued a joint statement noting “a suite of federal-provincial-territorial business risk management programs is available to help farmers manage risks that threaten the viability of their farm, including disaster situations.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited with fire fighters in Prince George last week and on Aug. 22 announced creation of a cabinet committee to co-ordinate federal efforts to help fire-affected communities in B.C.

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