Jesse Zeman grew up in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. He knows the landscape well and enjoys hunting deer in its interior Douglas-fir forests and fishing for Rainbow trout along its shorelines. His forested property along Kelowna’s west bank is where he and his growing family call home.
“We love where we live,” Jesse says. “We love having wildlife around us.”
But this summer, when the McDougall Creek Fire flared up one hot mid-August evening, Jesse stood in his uncle’s ski boat, watching waves crash over the bow and uncontrollable flames consume properties on both shores of Okanagan Lake. It was a surreal moment because he had also just lost his home.
“That night our house, our whole property, and everything on it was consumed by the fire. It was unbelievable,” Jesse says.
Having been on evacuation alert and order many times before, Jesse and his wife prepared ahead of time. They got their horses, dogs and children to safety, and freezers full of halibut, lingcod, salmon and deer meat packed into the back of their trailer. But hard drives, kid’s artwork, and family heirlooms were lost in the blaze.
“There was a Winchester firearm from the early 1900s that was given to me by my grandpa. I was going to get it out of the safe, but I was distracted when someone asked me a question. Losing these irreplaceable memories is something you think about afterwards,” Jesse says.
Losing personal possessions was tough for Jesse. Still, being an avid outdoorsman who cares about wildlife and their habitat, the damage to the land and forest behind his home was what really struck him.
“It’s personal because we lost our house, memories, and trees,” Jesse says. “The severity of the fire is hard to imagine. Hundreds of trees were blown over by the wind ahead of the fire, and the remaining burned while standing. We will never replace those in my lifetime. It’s shocking. But it’s not surprising. Everyone is at risk from wildfire. We’ve been talking about this for decades.”
The ‘we’ Jesse refers to is the B.C. Wildlife Federation (BCWF), a community of hunters, anglers, and people who care about B.C.’s fish and wildlife. As the executive director and spokesperson for the BCWF, Jesse argues that the province has focused on cutting and selling trees instead of building healthy forests, which has left us unprepared for today’s intense wildfires.
“Until we overhaul forest management, wildfires and smoky skies will become the norm,” Jesse said in a newspaper article this spring. “We need to forge a new relationship with our forests, watersheds and wildlife, focusing on sustainability and resiliency. Otherwise, with climate change, these problems only get worse.”
The BCWF has been tracking provincial spending for decades, paying close attention to the amount of money natural resource management gets each year. While that used to be significant at four to five per cent, since the early 1990s, spending has decreased. Today, it accounts for only 1.2 per cent of the annual provincial budget, the lowest it’s been in nearly 50 years.
“We’ve cut back funding, which would prevent these issues,” Jesse says. “Funding is one of the secret ingredients that makes renewable resource management work.”
Jesse believes that because of this lack of money and management, B.C. has failed to protect some of its most treasured animals.
“To us, the Thompson River Steelhead is near and dear to everybody’s heart because they are now endangered,” Jesse says. “In the ‘70s, there were thousands of these fish. Now there are hundreds. What do we have now? There’s no steelhead, no caribou, and salmon are in decline. But none of this is surprising when you defund these things. This is what we should expect, and we should expect it to worsen unless we start investing in it.”
Jesse believes that by allocating adequate funds, resources, and protection to effectively manage ecosystems and wildlife habitats, we can safeguard nature and human homes from devastating wildfires, such as the one in Kelowna that wiped out his and 189 other properties.
“It means figuring out better ways to practice forestry on the landscape. It means getting prescribed and cultural burns — when Indigenous peoples burned land as a fire management tool — back on the landscape. It means having the funding and capacity to monitor and enforce existing laws. That’s the only way we get ahead of this,” Jesse says.
Forest management has been a topic of concern for British Columbians over the past several years, and a new law that would make biodiversity and ecosystem health a top priority for forest management is being proposed to politicians. It’s a law that Jesse supports 100 per cent, but only if the resources are in place to back it up.
“It’s great to have laws, but if you do not have funding and capacity to monitor and enforce those laws, the laws are meaningless,” Jesse says.
Jesse believes in the public’s power to shape policy and influence decision-makers, and he has been working professionally and personally on protecting and restoring wildlife habitats and natural places in B.C. for most of his adult life. He hopes those who share his concerns won’t take their own voice for granted.
“The good news is we have a provincial election next year,” Jesse says. “So I would recommend that everyone informs themselves of how much [money] the different parties are committing to take care of our fish, wildlife habitat, water, and all of these things. That’s what they can do. They can use their vote.”