Lessons from the summer of ’23 – Qualicum Beach the next West Kelowna?

October 3, 2023 – It was a warm sunny afternoon in June when we returned to Qualicum Beach from a trip down Island. Rounding a bend in the road a kilometre from the Qualicum Beach turn-off on Highway 19, we were startled to see a massive dark cloud billowing high near Mount Arrowsmith in the otherwise clear blue sky.

It took a moment, but then we realized that this must be the wildfire at Cameron Lake – just a 15-minute drive from QB! Reported as a small fire two days earlier, it had quickly grown into a wildfire.

Martin Mars waterbomber near the Town of Qualicum Beach, circa 2007. Photo – QB Fire Department

Driving into town to do a bit of shopping before heading home, we noticed that the wildfire was not visible at all from the town. Nor could you smell any smoke. It was business as usual. People we spoke with in town were not aware that an inferno loomed just over the ridge, a mere dozen kilometers away.

Hours later, a decision was made to close Highway 4 cutting off Port Alberni and Tofino/Ucluelet.

Weeks later, hard-working firefighters brought what came to be known as the Cameron Bluffs wildfire under control, but thousands of people’s lives were disrupted for two more months as road crews struggled to stabilize the rock cliffs on the edge of the only highway access to these western Vancouver Island communities.

Qualicum Beach was lucky, luckier than many BC communities in the summer of 2023. The winds and geography were in our favour. But for a change in the direction and force of winds, it may have been a different story — as it could be in the future.

Climate change has altered our weather and we can no longer count on ample rains in May and June to keep the adjacent forests damp enough to repel rampant wildfire, especially when soaring temperatures turn even the land into fuel. The wildfire spread by the dry grasses surrounding the town of Lahaina in Hawaii is a horrifying example.

How well is Qualicum Beach preparing for the threat of wildfires?

In August 2003 lightning sparked a wildfire in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park. The devastating inferno that followed became known as Firestorm 2003. That was a wake-up call for BC municipalities to pay much closer attention to the potential threats of wildfires near cities and towns and to proactively mitigate these “wildland urban interface” fire hazards.

Firestorm 2003, Kelowna, BC.

In 2007, the Town of Qualicum Beach produced a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, but a recent development permit application suggests that it is being ignored.

The developer’s submission to the Town’s Advisory Planning Commission states, “A Wildfire Risk Assessment is not required as no hazardous condition is identified for this site within the Town’s Bylaws and there is no direct interface with a forested area. An assessment will not be provided through this Development Permit Application.”

The proposed Pheasant Glen subdivision in the Town’s rural greenbelt is “the largest single development in the history of this town,” says Bruce Fleming-Smith, a sustainable building and design advocate and practitioner.

“Any layman who’s followed the devastating news pertaining to countless urban interface fires that have ravaged Canada over recent months,” says Fleming-Smith, “can just glance at the Google View of the Pheasant Glen property and shake their heads and say, “how could there not be serious wildfire risk here?”  

Fleming-Smith is calling for the Town to compel a Wildfire Risk Assessment before green-lighting the proposed development.

QB’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan states, “Approximately 65% of the Fire Protection Area served by the Qualicum Beach Fire Department was assessed with a high to extreme hazard interface fire hazard rating.  Elevated interface fire hazard ratings were prevalent in the Rural Greenbelt Area.”

Fleming-Smith says he was encouraged that “the Plan includes most of the protocols and references that much recent work on the subject includes, and also cites our federal FireSmart program which is one of the key reference points on this subject throughout Canada.”

Strangely, the Town seems unaware that QB already has a Community Wildfire Protection Plan. Fleming-Smith says he discovered the 2007 Plan as he was doing an online search. “Our [current 2018] OCP in fact does include a section about wildfire protection (3.1.31 – Community Wildfire Protection Plan)” he says, but it only mentions the intent to develop a wildfire protection plan.”

MapQuest image: Pheasant Glen Golf Resort in Qualicum Beach, BC.

Fleming-Smith also takes issue with the proposed Pheasant Glen subdivision application statement that there is “no direct interface with a forested area.”

“BC FireSmart and Wildland Urban Interface literature reveal how misleading this statement is,” says Fleming-Smith. “The fact is that the subdivision plan, as proposed, almost certainly could not meet BC FireSmart standards.”

Professional and legal advice recommended

Bruce Fleming-Smith says he is concerned with “the overall safety and interests of our community and in this case not only the PG development and subdivision but also surrounding properties, forest lands and civic infrastructure.”

“It is critical that Council seeks professional and legal advice as to how to proceed further with the Pheasant Glen DP application,” he says, “in the light of there being no Wildland Urban Interface Assessment done for this development and the adjacent rural area.”

In a recent letter, Fleming-Smith urged Council “to require an independent report giving full evidence as to the compliance of the [proposed] subdivision with safe and prudent FireSmart measures.”

The Town’s Advisory Planning Commission has also questioned the Pheasant Glen architect’s dismissal of wildfire risk to the proposed buildings, residents and visitors, as we report in our article elsewhere in this issue. See Pheasant Glen hotel design panned by Advisory Planning Commission.

Gil Sampson, with files from Bruce Fleming-Smith.

References:

2007 Community Wildfire Protection Plan – Qualicum Beach 

FireSmart: Protecting Your Community from Wildfire, 2nd edition