For Stewart Fraser, guiding has been his lifeblood for the past 20 years.
He knows his territory in the Nazko area like the back of his hand and the guide area has been his livelihood and provided for his family.
When the Plateau wildfire raged through his territory this summer, destroying his ranch and everything he worked so hard to establish, Stewart says he was devastated.
“This fire was started by Mother Nature, but went rogue through human mismanagement.”
It’s a four-part story for this land-based businessman, who has watched the evidence pile up over the years and has viewed the results firsthand.
It began in 2008 when the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations (MFLNRO) issued salvage permits, which were regulated by the Forest Practices Code (FPC). This included cleaning up the fuel created by the salvage operations (debris left on the land), the size of the cut blocks allowed and several other controls designed to manage the forest and indigenous wildlife.
The game changed dramatically in 2012 when the Province introduced professional reliance, which replaced the existing FPC and put monitoring in the hands of the large licencees.
“This was the industry monitoring itself and the rules changed from salvage logging [with debris cleanup] to salvage logging with no clean up of debris on the landscape.
“Are they adhering to professional reliance rules? Yes, but the rules are so slack there’s absolutely no cleanup of fuel on the ground, which is perfect fuel for the wildfires, and the block sizes are huge, they log entire valleys and that’s terrible stewardship.
“I believe logging has a place, but the rules need to make sense and the government needs to have rules that protect our forests and wildlife because we’re not in the public eye and we’re not a sensitive area like the Great Bear Rain Forest.
“We’re the brother no one wants to talks about – the guide outfitters, trappers and other land users out here. All these issues and historic mismanagement led to the disaster we’ve just lived through.”
Stewart says the Plateau wildfire never would have grown to the monster it did if the proper steps were taken when a lightning strike near Narcosli Lake Ecological Reserve started a manageable fire.
“It was a small fire and the local loggers near the site were prepared to go in and put it out; however, they were told to stand down, pack up and leave or they could be were liable for heavy fines. There are people right now facing fines for having fought fires.
“That fire burned for about two weeks unchecked and no one was doing anything about it. When the fire grew into a massive fire, they put a fire camp near Nazko.
“But while they were building that camp, they still weren’t fighting the fire. As the fire burned towards Nazko, the fire crews were building fire guards a high percentage of which did not work, logging wood but not fighting the fire.
“They never put a single water bomber on that fire. There were helicopters with buckets, but that was never going to put out that fire.”
The Fraser ranch was in the path of the fire and they were ordered to evacuate Nazko; however, Stewart refused to leave as he was trying to put up hay and protect his property.
The structural protection contractor went around to assess structures in need of protection and Stewart says “you’ll hear good stories and bad stories about this aspect of the fire,” but for him, they arrived at his ranch around July 28 and went around and did the assessment, stating that his place needed certain equipment.
“The structural people met me while I was evacuating my horses and asked about any other structures.
“The next day they met me and said they didn’t have the resources to protect my ranch.”
Stewart says he thought, “fair enough,” and on his way home from evacuating his family, he bought sprinklers and hoses.
“After the 2006 fires, we had a well dug right in front of the house just for this purpose.”
Stewart says he went to the fire camp looking for a pump and the structural protection supervisor said they had the ranch covered.
“So, I used the equipment for our place in Nazko. But on Aug. 13, the ranch was was gone.
“I went looking for evidence of structural protection and I found no evidence of burned hoses, pumps or sprinklers and my well hadn’t been disturbed. Now, I’m trying to get Freedom of Information (FOI) documents on those assessments on my place and any structural protection they deployed, but I can’t seem to get any of the documents as of yet.”
With his ranch completely gone, and the lost of 40 per cent of his hunting area a virtual moonscape, Stewart and other guide-outfitters are angry and frustrated.
“We’ve been fighting the incompetence battle since the salvage issue began and I know this fire didn’t have to burn. Why was it allowed to get so big?
“No one wants to hear how angry and frustrated we are or what we witnessed or our personal knowledge of what’s going on in our own backyard.
“The average B.C. resident doesn’t have a clue why that fire burned so huge.
“I’ve spent many nights without sleep and the worst part is we have tried to get answers about why the fire grew so big, but you can’t get the Cariboo Fire Centre to even answer the phone. The fire got so big because of decisions people made.
“I believe there’s a huge opportunity for this government, for John Horgan to ensure his re-election. He’s got to make the changes that have to be done to ensure this never happens again – if he has the will to make the changes and makes it right for those who lost everything.”
This writer spoke with a member of Premier John Horgan’s staff on Nov. 30. The staffer indicated an interview would be possible, and asked about the deadlines. She followed up with an e-mail request Dec. 5. On Dec. 8, however, the writer received two e-mails – one stated she had contacted the constituency office and should e-mail the premier director, and the other told Horgan wouldn’t be available and it was suggested she talk to a MFLNRO communications person.
However, Stewart is already seeing more missteps piling on top of previous missteps. He says they are logging everything, leaving fuel on the ground just as before.
They’re not leaving any winter breaks for any animals that might be in the area, he says, adding MFLNRO has decided that no impact assessment on wildlife is needed and the 2018 hunting season will remain in place as is.
“But there’s no animals out there, I’ve looked everywhere in my area and can’t find any tracks of wildlife. I’m not going to hunt the few animals that are still around because that will decimate the population.
“So I’ve lost about half my revenue in my guide area, and this loss is not just this year, its at least five years and probably more like 12 years before we can do anything out there. To date, the government has not announced any plans to help the small businesses recovery in my area or any area out here.”
Although he is fully supportive of the work of the Red Cross, Stewart says he finds it humiliating and demoralizing to ask for a $1,500 for small businesses that is just a drop in the bucket of his bills.
There are insurance issues, which work against him and many others and his massive loss of income, he adds.
“”My annual income over the next five years, I will lose, gross income of the guide area alone will be $1.2 million and through my business I support every business in this town, as well as Prince George and Williams Lake.
“We’re not rich people. We bought our tenure certificate with the understanding that the government would look after the land on which our tenure is based, such as good forest practices, wildlife management, habitat management, but they don’t manage wildlife, they manage people and people’s access to wildlife.
“If any of these current assessment teams were to ask me what I want, I want the government to buy back my tenure licence at a pre-fire level.
“I bought it in good faith. I have done everything that was asked of me but they haven’t delivered their side of the agreement. I’d then go and look for another tenure.
“I think we’re going to be left out in the cold. I believe because of what is happening right now, nothing is changed, debris is left on the ground and they’re taking everything leaving nothing with a total disregard for the wildlife management. “Unless they stop everything right now and take the time to re-evaluate what has happened and where we go from here, we tenure-holders and wildlife are doomed.
“I’m hopeful but not optimistic.”