British Columbia

Braving the Blazes

Will Grimm with the BC Wildfire Service doses hot spots after a controlled burn at a fire in Sechelt, B.C., on July 9, 2015. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Will Grimm with the BC Wildfire Service doses hot spots after a controlled burn at a fire in Sechelt, B.C., on July 9, 2015. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

In British Columbia, more than 2,300 workers are risking their lives battling upwards of 200 active wildfires. Reporter Andrea Woo and photographer John Lehmann joined one team putting out a blaze along the Sunshine Coast

ANDREA WOO – SECHELT, B.C.

Working swiftly, they march into the bush, yellowed grass and parched tree branches crunching under the weight of their boots.

They tip their drip-torches, spilling flaming fuel onto the arid land. The fires spread, racing across the carpet of tinder-dry earth, then upward, consuming trees that are 10 or more metres high. The heat – warm at first, then uncomfortably intense – forces others to hustle down the dusty logging road.

They are members of the B.C. Wildfire Service, one of several teams fighting more than 200 active wildfires in the province. They are conducting a controlled burn on the periphery of what’s being called the Old Sechelt Mine fire – a smaller blaze whose proximity to town has elevated it to one of B.C.’s highest priority wildfires. Creating a clean control line consumes fuel in the fire’s path, suppressing it.

It is the fire that claimed the life of John Phare, a logger of more than 40 years, who was much loved in the community. The 60-year-old, who was contracted to cut down trees near the fire, died last weekend when he was struck by a falling tree. Mr. Phare was to marry his fiancée soon; his daughter weds on Saturday.

“He was going to walk her down the aisle, but now her brother’s going to walk her down,” Mr. Phare’s brother, Lonnie, said on Friday. “It was the wrong timing for everything.”

More than 2,300 workers are handling B.C.’s wildfires, including 1,700 firefighters deployed throughout the province.

The tragic death – during an early wildfire season made more challenging by exceptionally dry conditions – is a reminder of the people who face tremendous risks to battle the flames and protect the communities they serve.

Continue reading at The Globe and Mail.

Eight surprising facts about B.C.’s civic elections

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson speaks to supporters after being elected for a third term during a civic election in Vancouver on Nov. 15. (JIMMY JEONG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson speaks to supporters after being elected for a third term during a civic election in Vancouver on Nov. 15. (JIMMY JEONG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Surrey was not nearly the “close three-way race” many polls and pundits said it would be. Insights West, for example, released a poll early in the week putting Linda Hepner and Doug McCallum tied at 33 per cent and Barinder Rasode at 30 per cent. But from early on Saturday evening, results showed that Ms. Hepner held a huge lead over the other two. By night’s end, Ms. Hepner, an ally of popular outgoing Mayor Dianne Watts, had 46,901 votes – more than Mr. McCallum (25,539) and Ms. Rasode (19,784) combined.

New Squamish councillor Peter Kent will have to set himself on fire. In a video posted to YouTube, Mr. Kent, a professional stuntman who worked as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stunt double in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Total Recall and Predator, pledged that if voter turnout in 2014 was higher than in 2011 (41.2 per cent), “I as a professional stuntman will set myself on fire in the centre of this street.” According to CivicInfoBC, this year’s turnout was 44.5. Reached by email the morning after his election, Mr. Kent showed no signs of backing down, saying he is now looking into getting a district permit to set himself afire in accordance with city laws. “I would be remiss to break my first campaign promise, wouldn’t I?” he wrote.

Vision Vancouver was decimated on Park Board. Vision, which previously controlled the Park Board with five of seven commissioners, was on Saturday night reduced to just one: former Vancouver Public Library chair Catherine Evans. This raises the question of how Vision’s handling of hot-button issues – like keeping cetaceans in captivity and the battle with resident groups over control of community centres – factored in. Of the other six commissioners, four are NPA and two are Green.

Voter turnout in Vancouver climbed to 44 per cent, according to preliminary numbers, up from 35 per cent in 2011. This was seen in long wait times that at some polling stations reached an hour. The Britannia Community Centre even ran out of ballots mid-afternoon, with staff telling voters it would be at least half an hour before they could restock.

Nearly 3,000 people voted to make Obi Canuel – a self professed “Pastafarian” who wears a colander on his head as religious headgear – a Surrey city councillor. Mr. Canuel – an ordained minister in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, made headlines in recent months for his battle with the Insurance Corp. of B.C., which refused to issue him a driver’s licence unless he removed his holy headgear for his photo. He ended up placing second-to-last in the race for city council, but he still received more than 2,800 votes.

Green councillor Adriane Carr has gotten a lot more popular. In 2011, Ms. Carr just barely made it on to Vancouver city council with 48,648 votes – just 90 more than 11th place finisher Ellen Woodsworth of COPE. This year, she was by far the most popular councillor, taking in 74,077 votes – 5,658 more than second place finisher George Affleck of the NPA.

For the first time, municipal elections candidates – as well as staff on the parties’ payrolls – were prohibited from promoting themselves, or their parties, on social media on Election Day. This rule has existed for provincial elections and byelections for some time, but is new for municipal elections under the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act, which came into effect on May 29. Under the rules of the Act, a candidate can use social media on Election Day to post about something completely unrelated to the election – Gregor Robertson could Instagram his breakfast, for example – but he cannot use it to say “Get out and vote,” even if he does not mention his party, Vision Vancouver. A campaign volunteer can use a personal account to post about the campaign as long as he or she is not being paid to do so. Those who violate these rules could face a penalty of up to $5,000 or one year in jail, if convicted.

The District of Stewart, with its population of about 500, had a voter turnout of 83.2 per cent. Results were hand-written on a sheet and posted online. Incumbent mayor Galina Durant was re-elected with 199 votes; competitor Steve Howe had 92.

My latest in the Globe and Mail.

As evictions loom, even a landmark court ruling can’t bring certainty on Gitxsan land

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Hazelton, a sleepy, northwestern B.C. town where a dispute involving the Gitxsan First Nation, province and federal government is playing out. It was a challenging story to write, with a lot of important background and a wealth of varying, meaningful opinions. It was tough to compile everything into a cohesive story, giving appropriate space to each element and still fit the word count. Much was ultimately cut; the story could have been twice as long if I had been given the space.

The Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs have set an Aug. 4 deadline for an eviction notice sent to sports fishermen, loggers and CN Rail in an escalation of protest over a territorial overlap claim. To the Gitxsan First Nation, this is not a just a story about jobs or land, but the history and future of its people. This will be a story to watch in coming weeks.

A totem pole in the village of Kitwanga, B.C., part of the Gitxsan Nation. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

A totem pole in the village of Kitwanga, B.C., part of the Gitxsan Nation. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

The signs outside Norman Stephens’ Hazelton, B.C., hardware store make clear his stance on pipelines: On one, the letters LNG are crossed out with a red X; on another, two salmon – one dead – face each other, illustrating the potential risks involved.

“Face the future,” the latter reads. “Don’t frack with our salmon!”

Mr. Stephens, a hereditary chief of the Gitxsan First Nation, is adamant there is no place in the sleepy, northwestern B.C. community for such projects. And after a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision that underscored aboriginal title and rights, he is confident the Gitxsan will have final say on the matter.

A faction of the Gitxsan – one not including Mr. Stephens – is relying on the Supreme Court ruling to back eviction notices issued to Canadian National Railway, forestry companies and some fishing lodges that also operate on land the Gitxsan claim. The eviction deadline is Monday.

“After the Tsilhqot’in decision, the ball is in our court,” Mr. Stephens said. “We have full control over it.”

But while many hailed the Tsilhqot’in court ruling as a game-changer, the future of the Gitxsan territory is anything but clear. Division within the group, stemming from long-standing differences of opinion among some hereditary chiefs, has created uncertainty. The community is now at a crossroads for its future, needing to balance economic goals and environmental concerns while reconciling outward conflicts with governments and within the group itself.

The main issue has nothing to do with liquefied natural gas or pipelines. It’s a touchy territorial overlap claim: The Gitxsan First Nation say that in negotiating treaty agreements with the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum bands, which belong to the Tsimshian First Nation, the B.C. government illegally gave away pieces of Gitxsan land.

The Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs, a group that represents most but not all of the chiefs, broke off pipeline discussions with the government on June 21 for the same reason. The eviction notice is an escalation of protest to force the government’s hand in resolving the issue, said Gitxsan Treaty Society negotiator Gwaans, whose English name is Beverley Clifton Percival.

But while most of the nation’s hereditary chiefs supported the June decision to end LNG talks, only eight signed last month’s eviction notice – most of whom are directly affected by the overlap issue. Those who oppose the action say sports fishermen and loggers are being caught in the crossfire.

Among non-native locals, the eviction notice sparked mixed responses: anger, uncertainty, confusion, indifference. Martin Knutson, who owns Skeena Meadows Wildlife Preseve with his wife, said it is creating uncertainty in a community that is already economically depressed.

“Uncertainty is what drives away business. What is needed is certainty as to how our provincial and federal governments are going to deal with this and what the rules are going to be going forward. Industry runs away from uncertainty.”

Shannon McPhail, executive director at the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, said in the past week she has received e-mails, phone calls and visits from more than 100 people trying to figure out what is happening and why.

“It’s a very confusing and unfortunate situation,” said Ms. McPhail from her office in Hazelton. “I believe it has made enemies out of allies – but it has started a very important conversation that we have to have as a region.”

Continue reading at The Globe and Mail.

Nemiah Valley, British Columbia

On a work trip this past weekend up to Nemiah Valley, in British Columbia’s central interior, I got the chance to visit Chilko Lake. In short, it is STUNNING. Clear, turquoise water, breathtaking colours. Reminds me of Banff’s Lake Louise. Easily the most beautiful body of water I’ve seen to date.

Gettin’ my Simba on

My view from there (photos really don’t do it justice):

The reason I was there was to cover the Nemiah Valley Rodeo and Mountain Race. There’s an extended intro about it here, which ran with a page of photos from photojournalist John Lehmann, but those are not yet online. An audio slideshow is in the works; I’ll post that up when it’s ready. (EDIT: Here it is.)

In the meantime, a description of the mountain race, which takes place during the rodeo intermission on both Saturday and Sunday, and is the highlight of the event:

The mountain race, founded by the Xeni Gwet’in band of the Chilcotin nation, sees riders barrel down a steep hillside, over rocks and gravel, into creeks and beaver dams and around dangerous turns through blinding plumes of dirt and dust. Some riders emerge dripping wet, some are stalled in the swamp and mud and some are tossed from their horses along the way.

It takes riders about 20 minutes to reach the starting point up the hill and, on average, 90 seconds to get down the three-quarter-mile trail.

This is cowboy Howie Lulua, who won on both days:

His brother, Jimmy Lulua, ended up falling off his horse on the second day of the race, breaking his leg. He had to be medivaced out; his horse shot.

A few other miscellaneous shots from the trip:

John Lehmann realizing he’ll have to lug thousands of dollars worth of equipment through two bodies of water to properly shoot the mountain race.

Tie-down roping