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Burn, baby, Burn. RDOS Area F pilots wildfire risk reduction program on West Bench

A Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen Parks team headed by RDOS Wildfire Mitigation Specialist and FireSmart Coordinator Hayden Zahrawi ignited a series of "burn piles" last week in the sprawling West Bench neighbourhood just northwest of Penticton.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Scene from last week's West Bench burn

The operation, which began with the group gathering "fuel" for their fire (combustible material ranging from branches to twigs to cones to needles to grasses and more), was nothing new for a region doing everything it can to reduce the chance and the frequency of warm-season wildfires.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Scene from last week's West Bench burn

Each winter, when the temps are the cold and the moisture levels high, columns of smoke are visible in the hills surrounding Penticton as crews gather and burn off fuel so there's less of it kicking around in the hot, dry months.

But this was a different case than all of those. It wasn't city-owned land. It wasn't crown land. It was RDOS land. And the operation was an RDOS pilot project.

It all happened on a relatively small forested parcel of RDOS property only four to five acres in size in the midst of the West Bench, just off West Bench Drive and adjoining Selby Park, another sub-five-acre RDOS parcel.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Scene from last week's West Bench burn

Indeed, besides those two properties, the RDOS owns very little else on the West Bench.

"This is something we're piloting," said RDOS Area F Director Riley Gettens later. "It’s not region-wide yet. So they haven't been doing it in all the other areas."

Gettens explained the idea was triggered by a West Bench wildfire on Aug. 19 of last year and the lingering fears of nearby residents.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Scene from last week's West Bench burn

Quick action on that day by some of those residents and by the Penticton and Penticton Indian Band fire departments stopped the blaze, on a finger of PIB land sandwiched between residential streets and perhaps 300 meters from last week's prescribed burn, before it could spread.

But if an errant spark had caught a breeze, the impact would have been far, far greater.

That it occurred in the same week that the vicious McDougall Creek wildfire in West Kelowna, the Crater Creek fire near Keremeos and the Upper Park Rill Creek fire near Twin Lakes were all at maximum fury only added to the fear factor.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> 2023 Crater Creek fire erupts

Making it even more memorable, the quickly-snuffed blaze occurred on the very same day the BC government announced a tough South Okanagan travel ban that's since been hammered for annihilating the remainder of the region's 2023 tourist trade.

So operations like last week's are key. One of the big hopes is that others on the Bench and across Area F, which includes population spots like West Bench, Sage Mesa and much of rural Summerland, will see the RDOS being proactive on its own land and feel inspired to FireSmart and reduce risk as well.

"We wondered how we could ask citizens to FireSmart their own properties if our RDOS land isn’t," said Gettens. "So I talked to Justin (Shuttleworth, RDOS Manager of Parks and Facilities) to see if we can just pilot some of this work.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> 2023 Upper Park Rill Creek fire near Twin Lakes

"So we had some Parks staff. And we had a window we didn’t expect them to have to get up there to do some chainsaw training and limb up the trees so they're at the 12-foot mark and do some FireSmarting principles. And then they called the City and got the permission to burn."

According to Gettens, the opportunity window was "excellent," and the crew was able to cut and eradicate more fuel than was anticipated.

"The whole idea is to start FireSmarting," she said, "and then maybe everyone else will come join us. We're looking at the same thing with our new invasives (pilot) program. Can we just start getting rid of invasives so we can share and educate citizens as to what an invasive is?

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> 2023 Crater Creek fire

"And that's my lofty goal – that we're all working on this stuff together all over the region."

Gettens said there's already interest from other directors in other areas. But, she cautioned, the work doesn’t come free.

"We're just testing it out," she said. "I know there's interest from other areas, but it’s up to their directors if they want to pay for it or not."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Scene from last week's West Bench burn

For more info on the wildfire risk reduction work that's been piloted this year on the West Bench, turn here.

For more info on the new invasive species initiative, also being piloted on the West Bench, turn here.

Send your comments, news tips, typos, letter to the editor, photos and videos to [email protected].







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