Stupidity a major fire risk

By the end of June, there had been more than 560 wildfires in British Columbia.

As of Aug. 29, more than 1.2 million hectares of forest land and wildlife habitat had been destroyed. By that same date, 534 wildfires were burning in B.C., with 34 evacuation orders affecting about 3,200 people, while another 53 evacuation alerts affected about 21,800 people.

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In my home state of New South Wales, Australia, intentionally or even unintentionally causing a bushfire, or even through inactivity failing to prevent a fire spreading, is a serious offence that carries a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment. If a person dies as a result of a bushfire, the perpetrator may be charged with murder or manslaughter, which can carry a maximum penalty of up to 25 years' imprisonment.

Human-caused bush fires are no joke in sun-parched Australia.

In Hood River, Ore., in May, a judge ordered a Vancouver, Wash., teenager who threw two firecrackers to pay nearly

$37 million in restitution over at least 10 years after he started a major wildfire last year.

Here in B.C. last year, the fine for ignoring fire restrictions was increased to a measly $1,100; even then, it was an increase of 218 per cent from previous fines.

Failing to properly dispose of burning substances, such as cigarette butts, now carries a ticket of $575. In addition to fines, people found to have started a wildfire in B.C. could face one year in jail and individual fines of up to $100,000.

They could also be forced to pay for the cost of firefighting.

After a fire in Barriere, north of Kamloops, caused millions of dollars in damage in 2003, Michael Barre was found guilty of accidentally starting the blaze and was fined $3,000. The same year, a Kamloops resident was also found to have started a fire and was ordered to pay the Forests Ministry $10,000 in restitution, in addition to a fine of $1,150.

A young couple hiking the trails up behind Happy Valley Road in Langford last Sunday found and, with some considerable difficulty, extinguished a cigarette butt still smouldering away in the dried bark mulch of the well-used heavily forested recreational trail.

Under the circumstances we face in B.C., it's hard to comprehend how someone could toss a burning butt alongside a forest trail.

Immediately below those trails are tens of millions of dollars' worth of brand-new homes, many of them first-time purchases by newly married couples, much like the young couple who were out hiking and who, quite possibly, curtailed what could have been an indescribable disaster.

So let's set aside for a moment the property loss, lives turned upside down in a day, and the possible fatal consequences to the men and women who are called in to fight the fires.

Let's also pretend that people who smoke while they hike, camp or fish not only can't control their addiction, but are unaware of the consequences of their carelessness and stupidity.

But these are all practical considerations. Hopefully, it was not malice that caused somebody to drop that live cigarette on a flammable bushland trail next to a new housing development, constructed substantially of kiln-dried lumber.

Stupidity, as one writer said, trumps Machiavelli almost every time when you are looking for an explanation.

So if we are charitable and don't blame malice, we are left with but an almost numbing stupidity and self-centred witlessness to explain why, out walking in the woods, somebody not only had to smoke a cigarette but couldn't be bothered to extinguish a smoking butt.

If I learned one bitter lesson after 20 years of senior organizational management, it was that, with every best intention and no matter how hard you try, you cannot protect people from themselves.

Here's a possible solution for reducing the number of human-caused fire disasters: Take those people convicted of carelessness with burning substances, especially in bushfire season, to the sites of what are believed to be human-caused fires. There, they could see for themselves what stupidity looks like first-hand and hear for themselves what families who lost everything have to say to them.

-- Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

© Virden Empire-Advance

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