Open fires and smoking are already prohibited in parks year round, but now barbecues are banned as well. The extremely high risk also brings new regulations into place for industrial activity in the forest interface. Making matters worse has been an outbreak of looper moths, a cyclical infestation of a native species that defoliates hemlocks and cedars, causing many of them to dry out and die.
An anxious District of North Vancouver council had plenty of questions for fire Chief Brian Hutchinson at Monday night’s meeting.
“We’re all feeling concerned right now – the state of our planet, the state of our community in regards to what we see when we cast our eyes up into those hills,” said Coun. Lisa Muri. “The forest is suffering right now. It’s very, very dry. You can see an increase in stands [of trees] that are coming down or are in decline.”
The risk is likely to stay at extreme for the “foreseeable future,” Hutchinson said, but the district is uniquely prepared, having a wildfire protection plan in place since 2007 and most recently updated in 2019.
The district has about 7,200 homes on the forest edge. The fire department does offer home assessments, in which they send an expert to come advise an owner what they can do on their property to limit the chances of a fire jumping between the private property and the forest. New homes built on the interface have a different set of rules to comply with, aimed completely at reducing fire risk. The District of West Vancouver adopted similar rules last year. If the worst should happen, Hutchinson said his crews have been through intense training.
“We at the District of North Van, I have no hesitation saying, are in the top tier of fire departments in British Columbia in terms of our preparedness and readiness to respond,” he said. “Yes, there’s extreme fire hazard out there. Yes, the province, due to climate change and a number of other things, is in a very different situation. But we’re at a point in time where I truly feel the district as a whole and District Fire are well positioned to deal with this and to keep our public safe.”
Hutchinson stressed that everyone should download the Alertable app to their smartphone – North Shore Emergency Management’s tool for keeping the public informed about any major threats or evacuation orders.
For now, there are no plans to close any backcountry parks or trails, said John McEwen, chairman of Metro Vancouver’s regional parks committee.
“The public are a great asset in monitoring for and reporting any fires that may occur to 911, and having those extra sets of eyes in regional parks and greenways is very helpful in allowing for us to quickly respond to any incidents. However, we ask that people stay on designated trails, do not light campfires, briquette barbecues or stoves, and remember that smoking is never permitted,” he said. “Conditions have made our regional parks and greenways tinder dry, so while these areas remain open to the public at this time, full or partial closures could be implemented in co-ordination with local fire authorities.”
The district, Metro Vancouver and the province all have experts monitoring the impacts of the looper outbreak. It won’t be known for another year or so how many trees will die, but as old ones come down, it will create new holes in the forest canopy, allowing new species to spring up and introducing some biodiversity to the largely monoculture second-growth forests on the North Shore, according to district staff.