B.C.'s wildest wildfire season: looking at how to prevent a repeat performance

By Jim Stirling

British Columbia’s worst forest fire season was just gathering momentum early this summer when opinions about how to prevent a repeat performance in the future began circulating with the smoke.

Wildfires are endemic to B.C.’s forest lands but the province has become rather good at fighting them. Some might argue too efficient and cite as an example firefighting’s effective creation of an even-aged lodgepole pine monoculture that contributed to the beetle epidemic.

But it was also successive warmer winters that accelerated the beetles’ spread—and that continuing change in weather patterns is now stimulating this new breed of super wildfires: ones that tend to be larger, more aggressive and unpredictable. But deprive the monster of fuel upon which to feed and containment and control measures can make more inroads faster. The complex relationships between fuel sources and availability are key factors in the protection of peoples’ lives, property and community infrastructure. It was around that fuel control issue that most opinions swirled as the wildfires spread.

It’s difficult to gauge the precise scope of the problem created by the wildfires. Some were still burning in areas as this was written. Accurate, on-the-ground assessments had yet to be made. But the BC Wildfire Service reported in September 2017 that there had been more than 12,000 wildfires around the province since April 1. They had consumed at least 11,700 square kilometres—well in excess of a million hectares—of forest lands, and eclipsed the previous record for land burned by forest fires set in 1958.

Under siege from wildfires on three sides, residents of the Cariboo region city of Williams Lake and rural communities surrounding it were issued with evacuation orders in the summer. As residents later trickled home to assess the fire’s tolls on their homes and livelihoods, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C.’s new premier, John Horgan, toured the stricken region for a first-hand look at the situation. At the time, there were no official commitments of assistance from Trudeau, but Horgan told the media he was “confident” the federal government will come through with assistance when needed.

Horgan indicated his NDP government will be looking to the Filmon Report to form the basis for wildfire mitigation strategies and practices. The Filmon Report—called Firestorm 2003—was commissioned by the former B.C. Liberal government after wildfires destroyed more than 300 homes and businesses in B.C.’s Okanagan region. Gary Filmon, a former Manitoba premier, warned more severe forest fires would ensue unless action was taken to reduce the accumulation of fuels like underbrush and woody debris on the forest floor around communities. His forecast has proved devastatingly accurate.

Doug Donaldson, B.C.’s relatively new Forests Minister, agreed much more needs to be done to reduce fuel, including wood debris and underbrush, around communities. Donaldson added he would be making a submission for more funds for fuel treatments.

“We want to make sure that communities are safer and that effort, in my opinion, has not been what it needs to be to protect communities.”

Some follow-up work to the Filmon Report did take place. But it has mainly occurred around the largest Interior cities like Kelowna, Kamloops and Prince George. “The amount of fuel management to protect communities was miniscule relative to the scale of the challenge,” chided Bob Simpson, mayor of Quesnel. The province estimates about 13,500 square kilometres of forest land are at high risk for wildfire access to communities, an estimate largely unconfirmed at ground level. The same provincial data indicates less than 950 square kilometres have actually undergone fuel treatment, about seven per cent of the areas urgently requiring it.

One of the frustrations cited by small and medium size communities that have been proactive in wildfire mitigation efforts is having to bear the implementation costs up front and tardy reimbursement. Logan Lake in the southern interior for example, took the initiative to carefully remove “ladder fuels” to inhibit a fire’s ability to climb upward into the tree crowns, according to the town’s fire officials. The strategy worked, they contend, restricting a potentially serious wildfire to less than a hectare in size. But reimbursement of costs incurred can take a year, they say.

Firestorm 2003—Filmon’s report—recommended: “The province should review and amend land use plans and Land Resource Management Plans to incorporate fire management considerations. Fire experts must be available to influence and participate in land management policy.”

Amen to that, endorses Phil Burton, professor of ecosystem science and management at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. Burton recommends the creation of fire protection zones on Crown land surrounding wildfire-vulnerable communities. The emphasis within these zones should be on fire protection and community safety.

“We’re talking about less dense forests. Manage for resiliency rather than timber production, a long term shift in how those interface areas are managed,” amplified Burton during a Vancouver Sun newspaper interview. Wildlife species like caribou and grizzly bears receive some habitat recognition through the creation of special management zones. Burton is suggesting a similar approach be applied where needed to community protection.

It’s going to be instructional to see how Premier Horgan and his new caucus ventures into the issue of community wildfire protection and with what levels of financial commitment. The warming climate is unlikely to change anytime soon—or the risks from its potent new breed of wildfires.

Logging and Sawmilling Journal
November 2017

On the Cover:
While others shy away from oilpatch logging, Alberta's JD Haggart Contracting pursues this business for one simple reason—it pays better and they have the experience to be able to mobilize quickly when an opportunity comes their way. They also have the equipment to deliver the wood, including two John Deere 2154 processor carriers, both equipped with Waratah heads. Read all about the operation beginning on page 10 of this issue. (Cover photo by Tony Kryzanowski)

Balancing out the forestry workplace
There’s a movement underway to encourage more women to work in the forest industry, and it’s getting some solid traction from forest company Tolko Industries—and full support from women who are now working in the industry.

Ability and availability = logging success
Alberta logging contractor JD Haggart—managed by the husband and wife team of Dave and Roxanne Haggart—know that ability and availability are keys to logging success, especially in oilpatch logging.

Front end focus following mill fire
Saskatchewan’s NorSask Forest Products is bouncing back from a fire that hit its sawmill earlier this year, and has invested $21 million on a major front end redesign following the fire.

Bringing on the next generation...
Nova Scotia’s Sebastien Pouliot knew he wanted to be a logger at a very young age—and he’s now successfully ushering in a new generation of equipment operators, through a training program.

Salvage logging in B.C.—but this time it's for burned wood
Forest companies and logging contractors are getting ready to go into salvage mode big-time to tackle the burned timber from the worst fire season B.C. has ever seen. It’s been estimated that about 53 million cubic metres of timber has been burned, about four times the provincial allowable annual cut.

Sawmill/speedway combo
Paul Hargrave and his son, Scott, have a passion for sawmilling—and for race cars, too, since they have a combination sawmill/speedway operation on B.C.’s Vancouver Island.

Team logging effort
The husband and wife team that manages Ontario’s St. Onge logging has been successful in directing their operations through the industry’s rocky times—and now has a very successful chipping operation, and recently started logging for EACOM and Weyerhaeuser.

The Edge
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre, Alberta Innovates and Alberta Agriculture.

The Last Word
Jim Stirling on B.C.’s wildest wildfire season, and looking at how to prevent a repeat performance.

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