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Nov  2003


What next After the Fires

This past summer’s forest fires in BC often brought out the best in the forest industry, with brave tales, but now the province, and the industry, has to figure out how and what to salvage.

By Jim Stirling

The conflagration across British Columbia’s Southern Interior forests this past summer created alarming statistics, heartwarming stories and complex questions. The fall found some wildfires continuing to smoulder, awaiting winter’s snows to finally extinguish them. But the preliminary figures resulting from BC’s summer of fire make grim reading. There were 2,460 fires that burned about 250,000 hectares of land in BC.

The number of fires bordering urban areas was 37. Three hundred and thirty- four houses were engulfed and lost to the fires; more than 50,000 people were evacuated from their homes. Firefighters from around the province and across the country rallied to the emergency, 7,600 of them, aided by 920 military personnel. The cost in human terms and to the landscape is immeasurable. In financial terms, the expected cost of fighting the fires is $545 million, nearly 10 times the 10-year average. Premier Gordon Campbell announced that a review will be conducted to examine BC’ s response to the forest fires.

Campbell says questions the review will seek to answer include: “How could we have dealt with it better? What could we learn from emergency preparedness? What did people go through? Can we improve those public communications?” The review will be headed by Gary Filmon, Manitoba’s former premier, and will report to the provincial cabinet with recommendations for implementation in the 2004 fire season. As users and occupiers of the landscape, the forest industry was hugely impacted by the fires. The largest single loss was absorbed by Tolko Industries when its Louis Creek sawmill and planer complex was destroyed by the McClure-Barriere fire in July.

The blaze was allegedly the result of human carelessness. It was exacerbated by hot and windy weather, and a prolonged drought that had left the forest duff and undergrowth explosively volatile. Those conditions were prevalent throughout the Southern Interior. The fire devastated most of Louis Creek. The futures of the 180 hourly people who worked at the sawmill and its contractors remain uncertain. “We are currently exploring the most cost-effective, long-term opportunities of replacing capacity and examining the potential of existing and new locations,” announced Mike Harkies, Tolko’s general manager of BC operations, in August. He cautioned the entire process of capacity replacement could take up to two years to complete.

Helicopter loading up to fight fires in BC this past summer: There are plans to get timber salvage underway this coming winter.

The decision-making process is complicated by industry uncertainties and economic conditions. In October, Tolko told residents what they didn’t want to hear. The mill at Louis Creek would not be rebuilt. The company was still considering its options, including which of its other Interior operations might pick up the slack. The company said it is exploring opportunities to expand production and employment at its veneer and plywood mill at nearby Heffley Creek. Tolko’s doomed sawmill/planer complex was insured, unlike some homeowners burned out in Louis Creek and other rural areas throughout the Interior.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates BC’s wildfire season will produce claims totalling at least $250 million. Not all the estimated 250,000 hectares scorched were forested lands. “As devastating as this year is, it’s a very, very small percentage of Crown land that’s been affected by this (forest fires),” noted Larry Pederson, BC’s chief forester. The province manages about 25 million hectares for commercial timber production. “Other than the aggravation and frustration of not being able to operate and have their inventories depleting, the economic impact isn’t that great,” he continued.

But there was “aggravation and frustration” a-plenty. The entire Southern Interior forest industry was thrown out of kilter from early to mid-July onwards. Mills ran out of logs, sawmill workers were laid off and in response to that—and to make matters worse—lumber prices started climbing. The Council of Forest Industries of BC reckoned Interior lumber production dropped by 20 per cent, leading to 1,000 suspended mill workers and three times that in the harvesting sector. All licensees and logging operations in the Interior were affected by the forest fire situation to some extent.

At various times during the summer, mill/bush operations were disrupted for Slocan Forest Products in Radium and Slocan; Weyerhaeuser in Okanagan Falls and Tembec Inc, in Cranbrook. Operations well removed from the fires also suffered consequences. Large and small mills in McBride, east of Prince George, for example, were forced to close for several days after the McClure-Barriere fire consumed the 138 Kv transmission line that delivers power to businesses and people in the Robson Valley. As the summer’s fire crisis deepened, so did the swathe of countryside affected. Outright harvesting bans were extended into the Cariboo region.

The forests were so dry, the potential fuel so ripe for combustion, a single spark from a feller buncher blade striking a rock could ignite the bush. But log harvesting contractors were not left twiddling their thumbs with no work. Loggers were drafted to the fire lines. Equipment was in great demand to build fireguards, safety zones, access trails, heliports and camps. Silvicultural workers were similarly drafted. An example is a group from Smithers dispatched to the fire front of the 3,000 hectare Kuskonook fire near Creston. Most were treeplanters with no fire fighting experience. They learned quickly. They worked 13 hours a day, two weeks straight in the tough, dirty, dangerous world of trench digging, fire guard building and backlighting.

The mind-boggling logistics of keeping people fed and properly equipped, machines fueled and mobile, called for experienced generals to direct the attack. They weren’t always available. Everyone involved in the fire battles of ‘03 has his or her own story. A group of firefighters was forced to flee from an intense firewall that abruptly changed direction and rushed toward them. They reached a lake where they’d left a boat moored to take them to safety. But it had come loose and drifted away in the turbulent winds created by the firestorm. Fortunately, some belly boats and canoes were available for some of the firefighters. The rest had to swim for it across the oxygen-starved lake.

As they did, they realized they were not alone. Deer and bear had also taken to the water to survive. Rehabilitation and salvage plans were being developed while the land still glowed red. Stakeholders and landowners affected by the Chilco Lake wildfire—the largest single fire of the summer—were working with the BC Forest Service to create a rehabilitation plan in and around the Brittany Triangle area of the Chilcotin, west of Williams Lake. Chief forester Pederson said he hoped to get a jump-start on salvaging timber from some fire-stricken areas, beginning this winter with re-forestation to follow in spring. “We have about two to three years before the trees begin to break down. The longer we wait, the more the value of the wood drops,” he said. Whenever they’re salvaged, fire scorched timber creates additional problems for logging contractors and sawmillers. Carbon from the fire embedded in the wood fibre is abrasively harsh on cutting blades and mill breakdown equipment.

It also infiltrates hoses and hydraulic systems. The extensive damage cause by the forest wildfires last summer has called into question the province’s long adherence to a policy of fighting fires, rather than contributing resources to help preventing them. A 1996 Ministry of Forests research paper entitled Fire in the Dry Interior Forests of BC by Patrick Daigle declares: “It’s not fire suppression, it’s fire deferral. It’s not if these dry forests will burn, it’s when they will burn.” The problem is combustible material on the forest floor accumulates, especially during the successive low precipitation, high temperature weather cycles experienced recently in the Southern Interior.

The research paper outlines methods that could be used to reduce the build-up of combustible material over time. Prescribed fires could decrease the risk of “high intensity, stand replacing, rapidly spreading wildfires” suggests the report. Mechanical thinning and pruning could help reduce undergrowth while at the same time creating employment and revenue from converting thinnings to chips and other wood products. The construction of substantial firebreaks around communities on the urban/forest interface was identified as another possible s trategy. These and other options will be examined and re-examined in the months ahead. The lasting legacy of the 2003 infernos will be how governments, protection agencies and industry grapple with and implement workable preventative solutions.

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