Forest fire crew packs up at the end of a day’s work. Politicians should not wear this uniform. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

BC VIEWS: Notes from the forest fire zone

Media hype aside, this is not the worst fire season ever

I’m just back from vacation and a drive from Victoria to Prince George last week to visit relatives. Here are a few observations.

• The closure of Highway 97 through the South Cariboo forced northbound traffic to the Coquihalla and up Highway 5 to Little Fort, then west on Highway 24 to rejoin 97 just south of 100 Mile House. Blackened tree trunks are still visible near Barriere and McLure, north of Kamloops, where fires burned for 75 days in 2003, forcing the evacuation of 3,800 people.

The one visible roadside scar on the open route from this year’s fires was near Williams Lake, where a brush fire ran up to one of the many widening and paving projects underway this summer. The broad construction area acted as a firebreak and only a small spot burned on the other side before the fire was put out.

• Smoke was visible in the Prince George area, but it wasn’t until south of Quesnel that the brown haze and strong smell settled in. Air conditions were worst at Kamloops and Merritt, where smoke followed river valleys while trapped in an extended high-pressure system. A haze was still visible when I returned to Victoria, and when I started my car the next day, the smell from the air vents was a reminder of conditions in the Interior.

• Vancouver media went from bad to worse as they grew bored with the struggles of far-off towns and farms. Among many errors by drama-seeking urban outlets, the CBC announced the rescinding of an evacuation order for Princeton, which was never evacuated. Then for days the people’s network flogged the story of a back-burn gone wrong on Hart Ridge Mountain south of Clinton, after the wind shifted suddenly.

The tone of the coverage suggested a reckless, inept effort by the B.C. Wildfire Service, with sound-bites from an angry rancher who went to media instead of filing his damage claim with the province. The unfairness to exhausted firefighting crews seemed lost on them, or unimportant next to the media craving for conflict.

Worst of all was TV coverage of a family’s return to the burned-out mobile home park near Ashcroft. Zoom in on the crying, that’s gold for a jaded urban audience. If that’s what they put their effort into, they should stay home and do another bike lane story instead.

• Speaking of disaster porn, Al Gore cited the B.C. fires during the Toronto stop of the promotional tour for his latest movie, An Inconvenient Sequel. That’s the follow-up to his 2006 docu-drama that predicted an ice-free Arctic by 2014, the breakup of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and other dire events that have not materialized.

• B.C. statistics aren’t complete yet, but measuring by area burned province-wide, this year likely won’t match the record in 1958. Nationally, Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre statistics show so far in 2017, area burned across Canada is far below 1989, 1994, 1995 and 2014.

• On the NDP government’s second political tour of the fire zone, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, Forests Minister Doug Donaldson and North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice posed for pictures wearing the red uniform of the B.C. Forest Service. Pro tip for next time: don’t put on a uniform you haven’t earned the right to wear.

They did their helicopter tour and photo opportunity with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who delayed his visit to B.C. until he could attend a lucrative party fundraiser in Vancouver.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

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