B.C. ranchers anticipate devastating wildfire losses as evacuation orders lifted

By The Canadian Press
July 25, 2017 - 2:08pm

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — Ranchers in the centre of British Columbia’s cattle country are facing “heartbreak” as they return to scorched fields, dead and displaced livestock and damaged infrastructure following weeks of wildfires.

General manager of the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association Kevin Boon said the process of tallying losses has just begun and could take some time because the extreme heat of the wildfires would leave little evidence of a carcass.

He said it’s expected hundreds if not thousands of cattle were killed or injured by the fires. 

“The devastating part is done, and now the work really does begin,” said Boon. “(The ranchers) have got a lot on their plate right now and the more that can be done to help them is going to be key to their ability to bounce back from this.”

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Generations of infrastructure like barns and equipment have been lost in some cases, and kilometres of fencing will also need to be replaced.

Boon said the association is already working to replace fencing burned along major highways to prevent cattle from wandering into traffic, creating a safety hazard and potential for further losses.

Scorched fields also mean ranchers will need to find other sources for feed.

Boon said he’s working with ranchers to find opportunities to relocate some of the cattle for the short-term in the Peace region in northeast B.C., where conditions have been wetter.

The devastation is expected to take an emotional toll on ranchers who have seen their livelihoods disappear in an instant, Boon said, and it will continue to have long-term effects beyond the immediate costs of rebuilding.

The fires have disrupted breeding season, meaning calving next spring will be either delayed or significantly reduced, he added.

While the extent of the damage is still being calculated, ranchers and communities are still on alert, bracing for the potential of more fires this summer.

“At any given time, a lightning event or some more hot dry weather like they’re predicting is going to create that atmosphere for more fires, so where is the next one and with what severity?”  Boon said of the focus of ongoing emergency planning discussions.

For the first time, the cattlemen’s association is working directly with emergency response crews, a change Boon said has helped mitigate the extent of the loss.

The partnership has allowed some ranchers to get back to their properties that are under evacuation orders and work to protect them.

Some ranchers have said their operational losses could be as high as $3 million due to the fires, so it’s no surprise a number of them have evaded evacuation orders and stayed behind to defend their livelihoods, Boon said.

In an attempt to protect property from future fires, Boon said he’s encouraging ranchers and others to irrigate their fields, making them less vulnerable.

He’s also asking the government to support ranchers and other industries in these rural communities — namely forestry and mining — to rebuild once the fire season is over.

“If they can see some assistance coming to help them through this situation, they’re a pretty resilient lot. It’s a matter of how do we pull them out of their low,” Boon said.

A spokeswoman for the federal Ministry of Agriculture said there are a number of disaster response programs in place at the provincial and federal levels that ranchers can access.

Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced on Saturday that the costs to rebuild will be shared by the provincial and federal governments.

About 20,000 people across the province remained displaced and fire officials have warned that more winds are anticipated for the Cariboo region Wednesday and Thursday.

Despite the concerns, Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb said the city is ready to welcome thousands of residents home, as soon as fire officials give the okay.

About 10,000 residents of the Interior city were forced to leave more than a week ago when flames from several wildfires threatened to cut highway access.

Cobb said some people have since been allowed back in to help get grocery stores, the hospital and other services prepare for the looming re-entry.

—By Linda Givetash in Vancouver

The Canadian Press

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