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Fire ban confusion brings heated discussion

Provincial fire bans will be followed in all parts of the county, not just Green Zone, says regional fire chief

LAC LA BICHE - Fire knows no boundaries. From the recent Fort McMurray wildfire to the 1919 fire that swept across the prairies and wiped out the Lac La Biche townsite, flames in the real world can spread anywhere. On paper, however, lined boundaries govern where fires can start.

And on paper, the province's Forest Protection Area — the Green Zone — determines where provincial fire bans are in effect. In recent weeks, as the last of the winter snow thawed from the landscape, provincial fire bans were put into place on backyard firepits, burning barrels and other rural fires in the Green Zone. In the Lakeland area, however, several municipalities with land not part of the protection area opted to allow fires in those urban — yellow zone — areas.

It got confusing. An example is that land on the west side of Highway 36 south of the Lac La Biche hamlet is not included in the protection area, but properties on the other side of the highway fall within the province's protection area. The same kind of boundary line issues throughout the region give some municipalities that option to follow the fire ban in areas covered by the provincial protection area and waive the ban in those outside of the area. 

That was a mistake, says Lac La Biche County Coun. Jason Stedman.

"We messed up," he said after a week of council members hearing from residents across the municipality concerned about fire ban regulations. He said "shooting from the hip" with suggestions and answers to residents was "foolishness that we caused."

When the fire ban notices went up, many residents within the hamlet of Lac La Biche and other municipal subdivisions believed they could still burn in backyard firepits. 

"I got umpteen phone calls this past weekend," said Coun. Charlyn Moore whose rural ward covers the subdivision hamlet of Beaver Lake and Holowachuk Estates. 

Lac La Biche County Coun. Lorin Tkachuk is one of the elected representatives for the hamlet of Lac La Biche. He said very few residents he has spoken to knew anything about the forestry lines. He has tried to explain to them that the Green Zone isn't restricted to municipal boundaries, subdivisions and towns.

"The fire ban area is not about urban or rural," said Tkachuk. "It does not follow the lines of urban or rural."

Fire bans effect whole county

Lac La Biche Regional Fire Chief John Kokotilo says it gets confusing when different rules are applied to residents. His rule of thumb is to follow the province across the whole municipality when it comes to fire bans.

"I've always followed the provincial lead," he said, explaining that once, in 2015, he called a fire ban in the municipality before provincial officials issued one.

He thinks the recent concerns have arisen in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic and people looking to get outside of their homes where they have been "cooped up."

With a large portion of the county's area covered by the province's forestry area, Kokotilo says rural residents need to understand the restrictions.

"It wraps around us on the east and north sides, so a lot of dwellings and larger inhabited areas come into play with the Green Zone," he said.

Detailed map of Green Zones in Lac La Biche County

Protective services peace officers were called to several residences over the last week following up on complaints of backyard firepits. No fines were issued.

When asked if the municipality could request to have some more populated subdivisions taken out of the Forest Protection Area, Kokotilo said it could be expensive and put a big strain on the municipality's fire protection resources.

"It would be tougher for us. We just don't have the equipment, the resources," he said, explaining that a fire call to a remote wooded area in the Owl River area is best served by Alberta Forestry crews, helicopters and their resources.

Lac La Biche County councillors have requested municipal administrators to bring back information about costs associated with fire protection and mutual aid plans between the provincial government and the municipality.

In the mean time, Lac La Biche Biche County council has decided to take a 'one-ban-fits-all' approach and have municipal properties fall under provincial fire bans whenever they come into place. The information is expected to come back to council by June 2.