A Washington state official gave a talk about forest fires to Lower Mainland fire chiefs and members of the B.C. Wildfire Service at the U.S. consul general’s residence yesterday (June 9).
Peter Goldmark, commissioner of public lands, is the person responsible for defending Washington from forest fires such as the ones that ravaged the state last year in its worst wildfire season in history (one that did not go unnoticed by Vancouverites).
With B.C.'s fire season heating up, Goldmark, also head of Washington's department of natural resources and a volunteer firefighter for more than 30 years, accepted an invitation to share information with Canadian firefighters who face similar problems.
“The landscape is the same on both sides of the border,” Goldmark stressed to the Georgia Straight in an interview after his multimedia presentation. “The border is a kind of artificial interruption, and we all face that same challenge in terms of protecting both people and resources.”
The Northwest Compact, a cooperative operating plan between several northwest U.S. states and Canadian provinces, simplifies crossing the border for fire crews of either nation.
“It’s natural in the terms of the concept of mutual aid,” he said. “We all know that none of us alone have the resources in difficult years to be able to get the job done. So having adjacent resources at the provincial level up here that can come and help those of us in the border states is of incalculable value.”
He especially praised wildfire aircrews from the Abbotsford and Penticton fire centres, noting them as renowned below the border. “There’re some hotshot crews that are the highest-trained crews and that deal with the most complex fire situations,” Goldmark commended. “When we’re kind of maxed-out, we often have gotten those hotshot crews to help, and they’re really good.”
With the 2017 provincial election looming, there has been speculation about whether or not the extreme fire seasons of recent years will have an impact on parties' platforms. With some federal politicians calling major wildfires signs of climate change and of worse times to come, Goldmark thinks a more flexible response system may be needed for B.C., citing Washington’s "militia style" response units as a potential alternative.
“I think every government entity is going to figure out what’s best for them,” he cautioned. “But the compelling thing about the militia-style for the state is that it keeps the 12-month cost down because you don’t have to have people at the ready during the winter, during the low-fire-risk times.”
The militia model is styled as a sort of "drop and go" technique, Goldmark said, where wildfire volunteers could leave their day job in a matter of minutes and find the nearest transport. “When you have fire, you have people available...You’re not stood up all the time; the fire truck is within a mile or two [of] where you are, so when the fire starts, you respond.”
Disturbingly, along with warmer summers and an increasing number of fires, arson might be a factor, such as with a series of wildfires this year in B.C.'s Peace River region that are now under investigation. Washington faced a similar situation last year in a Wenatchee neighbourhood when a deliberately set fire destroyed 28 homes before firefighters prevailed.
“It still isn’t clear to me why.” Goldmark said, at a loss for words. “What’s going on in the mind of somebody that will deliberately start a fire on property, knowing that it’s going to be really damaging and maybe even kill somebody?
“How do you explain that?”