To say that 2017 was a heck of a year would be putting it mildly, says Steve Rice, director for Thompson-Nicola Regional District (TNRD) Area “I”. He lives in Spences Bridge, which was never under evacuation alert or order because of last summer’s wildfires, but highway closures had a major effect on the town; and Rice, a farmer, says that the fires impacted area farmers.
“We were affected by the lack of sun, the smoke, the lack of pollination, and the wild bee population was impacted,” he says. “It was a real challenge. It wasn’t a harvest like normal, and we really had a hit there.”
Businesses were adversely impacted by the road closures, and Rice takes it a step further, expressing his frustration with much social and public media coverage of the fires. “Every time you turned on the radio, the Interior had another road closure. You turned on the TV news and the message was loud and clear: ‘The Interior is on fire.’
“They didn’t tell people not to go there, but they might as well have told people not to go there, because people who had plans cancelled or altered them and went elsewhere. We were battling the fires and the media for business. The road closures were the beginning, and then it was sustained through the entire summer by the media.”
Rice, who last fall was re-elected as vice-chair of the TNRD board, says he spent a lot of time at the Emergency Operations Centre set up in Kamloops. “The TNRD had some good resources,” he says, while acknowledging that it took a bit of time to get things up and running smoothly. He points to a program developed on the fly by the TNRD’s Rebecca Ngo, which allowed TNRD residents to put in their address and immediately find out if they were under evacuation alert or order.
“When you have unprecedented circumstances like [the fires], you’re trying to link local governments, the TNRD, the Cariboo Regional District, because fires know no boundaries. Throw in the Red Cross and the BC Wildfire Service, and it was a battle. We were all learning on the fly. Wading through the floods in the spring, and then the wildfires: it was unprecedented, the magnitude of both.”
Noting that 2017 marked the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation, Rice says that last year’s disasters in the area were “an incredible birthday party we really didn’t need. Overall I’d give [the TNRD] a B- or B at least for dealing with what we were dealing with. Sure there are going to be mistakes, some wrong steps, from the wildfire branch to the TNRD to the province. Nobody had been in this kind of position before, where we didn’t have the resources to deal with the magnitude of the disaster. We scrambled.”
Rice points to the heroism and volunteerism that were on display. “It was remarkable. When called to battle, people were ready to go. There were lots of heroes, lots of support and resources and donations. We were overwhelmed at the TNRD, and had to tell people not to bring more. It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good. It was heartwarming to see, and gives you a renewed faith in human nature.”
A second attempt to establish a park on the former school ground in Spences Bridge was shelved, and Rice says that project is now on the back burner. He also says that the Spences Bridge Volunteer Fire Department is finding it a challenge to meet requirements of the new provincial playbook. “There are a lot of downloads, such as fire reviews that we can’t afford. We should be able to use federal gas tax funding for volunteer fire departments. That would be a huge help.
“Our [Spences Bridge] primary fire engine is 25 years old, and we need a new one. It’s very clear in the mandate. Your extension is from 20 to 25 years, so our volunteer fire department is trying to get a one year extension, maybe two years. So there are more taxes there, and that’s a big thing, a big challenge for small rural communities, who don’t want more taxes. And I’ve been talking with our fire chief, Arnie Oram, and he’s not sure if we’ll even have a fire department in 2018, because of the fire review that came down.”
Rice is looking forward to more work on the Kettle Valley Rail Trail, specifically the stretch between Merritt and Spences Bridge, after the project received a $500,000 grant from the provincial rural dividend fund. He also notes that the TNRD and the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association have each provided $7,500 in funding to the Gold Country Communities Society excellence program to help encourage people to shop at local businesses. “I’m excited about that. We’re trying to get some people not from the area to come here and see Gold Country and Area ‘I’, get some of that word of mouth advertising going. That’s our best advertising. And it will be an economic shot in the arm for businesses.”
The alarming decline of the Thompson River steelhead stock continues to be something Rice and others are doing a lot of work on. “William Shatner was on the CBC talking about it. I’ve been speaking with [Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon MP] Jati Sidhu about it, and have had conversations with him about the commercial chum fishery interception [of steelhead], to get that piece of the puzzle looked at and taken care of, and hopefully address the mortality for that incidental interception of the steelhead when they open that fishery up. I’m hopeful we’re going to make some progress.”
Rice sits on the TNRD Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) committee, and says that while he was disappointed by the low turnout at a public meeting in Cache Creek in December to discuss the SWMP, there will be more meetings to follow. “The information needs to get out to folks. People can go to the website (www.tnrd.ca) and have input. We’re rolling out a 10 year strategic plan for waste management in the TNRD, so it’s pretty important. It goes from recycling right up to garbage. But we can’t do the entire plan until the situation with the Cache Creek landfill is solidified.”
He says the TNRD board will be having conversations around last year’s wildfires and flooding and disaster mitigation. “We’ll learn from some of the things we could have done better, talk about the things we did well. That conversation is ongoing. And of course a big one is the legalisation of cannabis. We have to get some bylaws around that, have some conversations around the table. The federal government has already laid out the framework of what we will be required to have, and the provincial government is having conversations, but as a board we decided to start the conversation and see what we have to do.”
He’s also excited about plans to develop the McAbee Fossil Beds site east of Cache Creek. “That’s a great project, and I hope it has a great ending. I’m excited about what will happen with it in 2018.”
Asked if he is planning on running in this year’s local election, Rice says that as of now he is planning on running.
“I have work to do, and I’m excited about things that are happening now. We have an opportunity here for some economic infusion in our area, and I feel I’m a part of that movement, and that we’re on the cusp of it in our area. If we keep our eye on the ball we can turn the corner and have some sustainability.”