Hills wildfire risk reduction project taking its first steps

A new wildfire mitigation project is coming to Hills, thanks to the Hills Emergency Services Society (HESS) and the Ministry of Forests (MoF)’s Crown Land Wildfire Risk Reduction program.

“The objectives for the project are to increase our ability to get away from an approaching wildfire if it’s serious enough that an evacuation has to happen,” said Tyler Bradley, HESS board member. “As well, to assist BC Wildfire Services and other organizations in doing their work by taking steps within the community to give them better access [to fight fires].”

The project is just starting out. In the next few months, MoF will hire a contractor to create a fuel management prescription.

“Prescriptions provide recommendations on what activities need to occur in the treatment area to reduce fuels, reducing the threat of wildfire to the community of Hills,” said an MoF representative.

A few steps go into creating a prescription, like field data gathering, First Nations information sharing, various assessments, and stakeholder engagement sessions. Field work will happen before winter, and the prescription will get written up before the end of March next year.

The contractor will work with adjacent property owners and other stakeholders as the prescription is developed.

“This was really important to us,” said Richard Allin, who also sits on the HESS board. “We got assurances from the ministry that the community will come to agreement on the location and treatments before any work is okayed to go ahead.”

When completed, HESS will work with the contractor to carry out the fuel reduction activities. Allin said mitigation work will likely begin in 2026.

Two areas are proposed for treatment, totalling almost 130 hectares of Crown land. The first area is about 27 hectares, located southwest of Hills on the east side of Bonanza Creek. It is surrounded by private residences and includes part of the rail trail.

The second area is about 100 hectares, also on the east side of Bonanza Creek, with the highway and residences on the eastern boundary and the rail trail running by on the southwest.

“As these areas are directly adjacent to the community, highway, and recreational trails, there is a greater risk of fire starts,” said the ministry representative. “In the event of a wildfire, these areas are also at risk of fire starts from ember transport, meaning embers travelling over a distance from other areas.”

MoF also said that as field data, assessments, and community engagement are completed, the areas will likely change in size.

Bradley emphasized that no work will be done on private property.

“People can do their own fuel management at their personal home through FireSmart but there’s no requirements or mandates,” he said.

Crown land

The proposed areas are in unallocated Crown land.

“Unallocated Crown land has no timber forest licences,” said Bradley. “No forestry companies currently have, or have applied for, cutting permits on that land. Which means that the MoF and the community of Hills – if everyone is in agreement – can move forward with an independent program where the ministry, the community, and the approved contractor can develop a prescription and do fuel management work in that area.”

Allin explained that on unallocated Crown land, timber is not taken off the land for profit.

“If it was part of a timber supply area for one of the large forestry companies that operate in the area, part of their mandate and focus is getting timber… whereas on unallocated Crown land, and with the Ministry’s wildfire risk reduction program, the focus is solely on reducing wildfire risk. That’s important to the community – that the project is aimed at wildfire risk reduction and isn’t just a way to get in and cut timber.”

Though the proposed land is unallocated, Kalesnikoff Lumber Company does have an operating area on the west side of the Hills community, said Allin.

On May 21, HESS held a meeting to update residents on the project’s progress and give the community a chance to ask questions and provide input. A Kalesnikoff representative was present.

“The representative said they would be interested in working with us in a way that would give us assurances that our forest values would be protected,” said Allin, “and that it wouldn’t just be an excuse to come in and cut a bunch of timber.”

But Kalesnikoff is not directly involved at this point, he said.

“There are misconceptions about what the fuel management program will look like,” said Bradley. “There is this notion that once you turn [a forestry company’s] eye onto the area, there’s no turning back, and it might turn into a clearcut. People wonder who gets the money from the timber.

“By working with MoF and by steering things, we can be very clear and say we don’t want machinery or mechanized falling,” he continued.

Non-mechanized falling can be less disruptive and better protects wildlife habitats.

“And [by working with MoF] we don’t have to confer with businesses whose business is making money from logging… We’re really trying to dispel some of the myths or rumours of what’s actually at play here.”

Rachael Lesosky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice