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Flexibility key as B.C. faces new wildfire reality, forests minister says

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It’s been a trial by fire from day one for Doug Donaldson. When he stepped into the job of forests minister in July 2017, the province was already in a state of emergency because of out-of-control wildfires in central B.C.

That summer saw fires consume more of the province’s landscape than any year on record, as well as the largest evacuations in B.C. history.

It wasn’t an aberration. Even more of B.C. burned in the summer of 2018, and a state of emergency was declared once again.

Now eighteen months into the job, Donaldson says it’s clear we need to adjust to a new reality.

“When you see the types of fires we’ve had the last two seasons, when you see that fire behaviour, when you factor in the effects of climate change, then yes we have to be innovative, we have to be responsive, and we have to be flexible,” he told CBC in a year-end interview.

By the end of the 2018 wildfire season, 13,538 square kilometres of B.C. had burned, about 6,000 people had been ordered to leave their homes, and another 25,000 were placed on evacuation alert.

More of B.C.’s landscape has burned in the last two years than in the previous 25 years combined, and hundreds of families across the province have been left to rebuild their lives after losing their homes and belongings.

‘Frustrating’ delay in action on prevention

Human-caused climate change helped create ideal conditions for fire in 2017 and 2018, bringing hot and dry summer weather along with more lightning, scientists say.

But weather is just one necessary ingredient for catastrophe. Wildfires also need fuel, and forest management practices have long contributed to the severity of fires in B.C.

After the devastating wildfires of 2003, an independent review urged immediate action to remove potential fuels, such as dead wood and shrubs, from the landscape in the areas surrounding communities.

By the time 2017 rolled around, little of that work had been done.

“I think it’s frustrating for people who’ve been impacted by the fires in the last two seasons,” Donaldson acknowledged.

It’s going to take at least a decade for B.C. to catch up on necessary prevention work, according to Kevin Kriese, the chair of the Forest Practices Board.

Nonetheless, Donaldson is optimistic that we’ll be able to gain some ground before the 2019 wildfire season. Part of that will be accomplished through the new Community Resiliency Investment program that funds fuel management work on Crown and private land.

B.C. residents may have to adjust to occasional smoke from controlled burns, Donaldson said. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

The B.C. Wildfire Service has also conducted numerous prescribed burns since the fall, and Donaldson said there will be a renewed focus on controlled burning after years of hesitation.

That will require a lot of training to conduct safe burns, as well as understanding from the public.

“We can prepare ourselves by being more accepting of practices that could put smoke into the air for shorter periods of time,” he said.

Taking another look at glyphosate use

He also acknowledged the province will have to reconsider policies that promote a monoculture of highly flammable conifer trees in managed forests. As CBC has reported, B.C. mandates that thousands of regenerating forest stands be sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate every year to prevent the growth of broadleaf trees like aspen.

That’s even though aspen and other broadleaves serve as natural fuel breaks in the forest, often dramatically slowing the spread of a wildfire.

Donaldson said his ministry is looking into how to update forest regulations to promote a mosaic of different tree species.

“In some ways, because of these large fires, we have an opportunity to really rethink how we manage a forest,” he said.

Wildfire fringes the night sky at Fraser Lake, with the northern lights in the background, during the 2018 wildfire season. (Submitted by David Luggi)

It’s far too early to say what the 2019 wildfire season will bring, but long-range forecasts from Environment Canada suggest a strong probability it’ll be another warmer than normal summer.

For his part, Donaldson is hoping next summer will be a bit wetter, but he’s still haunted by the thought that more than homes could be lost next time around.

“I just am incredibly amazed at the … response that we’ve had so far that has ensured we’ve haven’t lost one life even though we’ve had 2.5 million hectares consumed,” he said.

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‘Too soon to celebrate’ Ottawa’s low case count, says Etches

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Ottawa Public Health (OPH) logged just 11 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the lowest daily total since Sept. 1.

Because of the lag between testing and reporting, the low number could simply reflect low turnout at the city’s testing sites on weekends — all month, new case counts have been lower on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 

During a virtual news conference Tuesday, the city’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said she doesn’t read too much into a single day’s report.

“I don’t think we can make too much of 11. Actually, it could be a lot higher tomorrow — I would expect that, on average,” she said. “It’s too soon to celebrate.”

Provincewide, public health officials reported 1, 249 new cases Tuesday.

OPH also declared 62 cases resolved Tuesday, lowering the number of known active cases in the city to 462. Two more people have died, both in care homes currently experiencing outbreaks, raising the city’s COVID-19 death toll to 361. 

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Santa Claus isn’t coming to Ottawa’s major malls this year

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Santa Claus may still be coming to town this Christmas, but he won’t be dropping by any of Ottawa’s major malls, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday, Cadillac Fairview said Santa won’t be making an appearance at any of its 19 malls across Canada, including Rideau Centre in downtown Ottawa. On Tuesday, Bayshore and St. Laurent shopping centres confirmed they, too, are scrapping the annual tradition.

“Due to the evolution of the situation in regards to COVID-19, we have made the difficult decision to cancel our Santa Program and Gift Wrap Program this year,” Bayshore spokesperson Sara Macdonald wrote in an email to CBC.

Macdonald said parent company Ivanhoé Cambridge cancelled all holiday activities “due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the country.”

Macdonald said families that had already booked an appointment to visit Santa will receive an email with more information.  

Virtual visits with Santa

Rideau Centre said based on customer research and discussions with public health officials, its North Pole is going online this year.

“Children will be able to have a private chat with Santa,” said Craig Flannagan, vice-president of marketing for Cadillac Fairview. “You’ll also be able to join a 15-minute storytime with Santa over Facebook Live.” 

At Place d’Orléans Shopping Centre, visitors are invited to take a “selfie with Santa” — actually, a life-size cutout of Santa Pierre, the man who’s been playing Santa at the east end mall for years.

“We understand that this is not ideal, but in lieu of this tradition we will be doing what we can to maintain and encourage holiday cheer,” according to a statement on the mall’s Facebook page.

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Ottawa Bylaw breaks up two large parties in Ottawa over the weekend

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Bylaw is investigating social gatherings of more than 10 people in private homes across Ottawa last weekend.

Mayor Jim Watson tells Newstalk 580 CFRA that Ottawa Bylaw broke-up two house parties over the weekend, with 20 to 25 people at each party.

“That’s the kind of stupidity that angers me, that’s where the bulk of the transmissions are taking place, if we exclude the tragedy of the long-term care homes; it’s these house parties with unrelated people,” said Watson on Newstalk 580 CFRA’s Ottawa at Work with Leslie Roberts.

“The message doesn’t seem to be getting through, particularly to some young people who think they’re invincible.”

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Bylaw and Regulatory Services Director Roger Chapman says, “There are still ongoing investigations from this past weekend that could result in charges.”

Chapman says recent investigations led to two charges being issued for social gatherings of more than 10 people in a private residence in contravention of the Reopening Ontario Act.

“In one case, up to 30 individuals were observed attending a house party in Ward 18 on Oct. 24,” said Chapman.

“The second charge was issued following a house party in Ward 16 on Oct. 31, where up to 16 individuals were observed to be in attendance.”

The fine is $880 for hosting an illegal gathering.

Alta Vista is Ward 18, while Ward 16 is River Ward.

Ottawa Bylaw has issued 24 charges for illegal gatherings since the start of the pandemic.

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