Beach fire remains at Mackenzie Beach in Tofino. (Westerly file photo)

Beach fire debate sparks unprecedented response in Tofino

“It’s double what we received for cannabis and we did that over a several-month period.”

Tofino’s longstanding beach fire ban debate is heating up and the town’s municipal council is expected to make a decision next week on whether to pursue a seasonal or year-long prohibition.

During their Sept. 28 committee of the whole meeting, council voted 4-2 in favour of a year-long ban, with councillors Duncan McMaster, Andrea McQuade, Al Anderson and Britt Chalmers supporting the move and councillors Tom Stere and Dan Law opposing it. Decisions made during COW meetings are not official and council will vote again during their Oct. 13 regular meeting.

The day following the COW decision, the district released a survey asking residents whether they would prefer a seasonal or year-long ban and Tofino’s Manager of Corporate Services Elyse Goatcher Bergman told the Westerly News that the public response that survey elicited has been unprecedented.

“It’s a tonne. It’s way more than I expected…It’s double what we received for cannabis and we did that over a several-month period,” she said. “By coming out of the gate with what seems to be a very strong policy position on this, council is really forcing the issue in the public’s mind and asking people to respond. It’s created this sort of visceral reaction, which I think is, in a way, really great to see that level of engagement where we might not have seen that same level of engagement if we’d just said, ‘What do you think about beach fires?’”

READ MORE: VIDEO: Tofino gets blunt about marijuana legalization

She said the survey’s results, as well as any written-in comments, will be presented to council prior to their decision on Oct. 13.

She acknowledged that some residents have raised concern about the survey’s only options being a seasonal ban or year-long ban, but explained that those were the two directions council had considered during their COW conversation.

“I didn’t want to be insincere with the community in terms of offering a bunch of policy options that council hadn’t put forward for themselves. I wanted to avoid the situation where you give people an opportunity to choose an option that’s not on the table,” she said.

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She added though that those winds could change based on the feedback the survey has sparked.

“Nothing is set in stone in terms of what policy direction [council] might want to go,” she said. “Now that we’ve received this much public comment, it’s very hard for me to say what they might choose to do. They might take a step back and ask staff to do a little bit more research on other options, or they might move forward with one of the options they’ve already selected for themselves.”

Tofino resident Ryan Orr is vehemently opposed to a beach fire ban and launched a petition on Sept. 30 in an effort to convince his local leaders to change their stance.

“Not only will this negatively impact the hundreds of thousands of visitors that keep Tofino’s tourist economy going, it unfairly punishes local residents that like to responsibly enjoy their own beach fires while spending quality time with their friends and families,” the petition reads, in part.

The petition had gained over 1,900 signatures as of Wednesday morning.

“Beach fires are a huge part of life in Tofino for our family and I knew that a large majority of people would feel the same way,” Orr told the Westerly News.

He acknowledged beach fires have become a point of contention, drawing in consistent letters from residents to council asking that they be banned, but he believes those letters represent “a very, very, very small portion of Tofino.”

“I’ve watched enough council meetings to know that they get enough letters from a very small, but very vocal, minority, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that they’d consider [a ban]. It would surprise me immensely if they do go for it, but maybe I’m just being hopeful,” he said. “I’d be shocked if that’s how democracy in Tofino is going to work.”

The motion to ban beach fires and subsequent COW conversation was brought forward by Coun. Duncan McMaster, who said he has been opposed to beach fires “for quite a while” and suggested the two beaches where fires are currently permitted, Chesterman and Mackenzie, are being stripped of driftwood and cluttered with debris.

“We’ve tried education and it just doesn’t seem to be working. I think things have come to a head this year and, I think, now the public has started to get away from that nostalgic West Coast experience that we should be allowed to have a beach fire, so let’s stop this,” McMaster said.

READ MORE: Burnt driftwood sparks push to ban beach fires in Tofino

Coun. Dan Law said he was “strongly opposed” to the ban.

“Beach fires, to me, are a cultural amenity that’s extremely important to the West Coast culture and life,” Law said adding beach fires are a popular family activity.

Coun. Britt Chalmers said she has previously been opposed to a beach fire ban, but her opinion had changed based on the concerns council has heard from residents “year after year.”

Coun. Andrea McQuade said she was “reluctant” to support a ban, but agreed with Chalmers that enough concerns have been raised for a long enough time to warrant the move.

“In the two years that I have been on council, this has been an ongoing issue and it has gotten progressively worse and it hasn’t gotten progressively worse from the same people, additional voices have been added every year saying that they reluctantly would support a ban too,” she said. “I think there’s a variety of ways we can craft a policy or bylaw around this, but I am in support of banning beach fires.”

Coun. Al Anderson agreed.

“I have to say that maybe this is an exceptional year, but the problem goes back a long, long ways…There’s always been some sort of a problem with fires on the beaches,” he said.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s sort of come to this point, but I’m also reluctant to do it. We’ve looked into this year after year after year…For all that we’ve done, it’s not having any impact on mitigating the impacts and the number of beach fires.”

Coun. Tom Stere said he “would be extremely reluctant to support a full prohibition,” but could support a seasonal ban.

McMaster suggested a seasonal ban would not deliver a strong enough message.

“I think we’ve got to start to lay down the law,” he said.

READ MORE: Beach fire ban debate reignited in Tofino

Law cautioned against penalizing residents in response to tourism related issues, but the town’s fire chief and manager of protective services Brent Baker responded to that by suggesting residents are as much to blame for Tofino’s beach fire woes as tourists are.

“The number of residents that are having beach fire issues is quite significant,” Baker said. “It’s people that you wouldn’t think would be out there not following the rules…We are where we are because of the masses and that includes both groups: visitors and residents.”

He suggested a beach fire ban would lead to a “healthier environment, a cleaner environment, and one that we actually want to go down, enjoy and have a nice beach walk.”

Baker also agreed with McMaster that a seasonal ban would miss the mark.

“People can be easily confused by rules and regulations when they’re not consistent across the board…If you start a season allowing it and then try to pull that back, that’s very hard to manage and very confusing to people,” he said.

“If we do prohibit beach fires and it’s very clear and consistent, in the first year for sure it’s going to have to be heavy on the enforcement resources so that we can make certain we’re getting out there and the message is clear every day…It should ease off year after year as the message is more and more known throughout the community, but what it takes is everybody in town and everybody representing Tofino being aware of this.”



andrew.bailey@westerlynews.ca

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