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Outdoor advocates question closing Lions Bay trails over fire risk

Acting mayor says wildfire risk too high for community
Firefighters deal with a 2019 fire in Lions Bay. | Keili Barrett / The Squamish Chief

North Shore outdoors advocates are questioning a recent decision by the Village of Lions Bay to close trailheads on municipal land and nearby visitor parking, over wildfire concerns.

The municipality issued a release late Thursday afternoon, saying popular trailheads that lead to the mountains above the village would be closed, citing the risk of human-caused fires at a time of high or extreme risk while the community is also facing a critical water shortage.

An online petition had circulated in the community earlier requesting that the trails on municipal land be closed, which resulted in a decision at a special council meeting Tuesday.

Unlike the fires around Kelowna or Yellowknife, one started on the trails above Lions Bay would be just a few hundred metres from homes, the municipality stated in its release, and with the small community reliant on water from the watershed in the mountains above them, a fire would quickly contaminate the water supply.

'Hikers are not the cause of fires': advocate

But local hiking advocate Steve Jones said he doubts officially closing the trailheads will make the community safer. While he sympathizes with residents’ fears of wildfire, “I don’t think it’s the most effective way to manage risk,” he said. “The fact of the matter is hikers are not a cause of fires.”

Jones said lightning, motorized vehicles and industrial activity are far more likely to start fires.

Most hikers commenting on the trailhead closure on social media said they felt the closures had more to do with longstanding tensions between hikers who come to use the area some area residents who have objected to their presence.

A wildfire earlier this summer near a popular cliff jumping area in Lions Bay is thought to have been started by someone behaving irresponsibly in that area. Another wildfire near Horseshoe Bay is believed to have started in a vehicle rest area and viewpoint along the highway – possibly from a discarded cigarette.

Trailheads to several popular hikes, including Tunnel Bluffs, the west Lion, Centennial Trail, Brunswick Mountain and Mount Harvey start in Lions Bay.

The trailheads and limited parking area are on municipal land, although most of the trails themselves are on Crown land and connect to trails in Cypress Provincial Park.

Jones said he thinks people will likely still hike in the area, despite the official closure, if they can find somewhere else to park without incurring a stiff fine. He added it would make more sense for BC Parks to acquire and manage the parking area and trailheads in Lions Bay used to access the provincial park.

Eyes in the forest needed

Jones said the worry is that official closures will mean fewer responsible hikers in the forest to keep an eye on things.

That’s also a concern shared by North Shore Rescue team leader Mike Danks, adding the rescue team doesn’t support closing trails to the public.

“We need the public to be the eyes and ears for us,” he said.

Danks added official closures make it more likely that people will find a way to sneak into the trails and not tell anyone where they are going, adding to difficulties if they run into trouble.

In contrast to Lions Bay, the District of North Vancouver and its fire department have supported keeping trails open.

“I’m not aware of any circumstances where hikers have caused a fire,” said Danks.

There have been fires in the bush caused by cooking fires that weren’t put out properly in the past, but those have been associated with people who were living in bush encampments.

Both Jones and Danks said it's likely with Lions Bay trailheads closed and two local First Nations announcing they are “shutting down” Joffre Lakes until the end of September, other parks and trails on the North Shore will be busier.

Jones said he has sympathy for communities struggling to deal with the impacts of hikers who come from other areas to access trails in large numbers. But in terms of wildfire risk, Jones said Lions Bay needs to do more work outside of fire season.

“From October to June next year, are they doing anything to put themselves in a better spot?” he asked.

A report on wildfire risk for Lions Bay rated the risk to the community as high. It recommended managing and removing combustible fuel, including thinning and spacing trees, and removing trees and brush on properties that back on to the forest, as one of the best ways to manage risk.

The village did not say how it plans to enforce the trailhead closures.