By Jim Stirling
Containing wildfires in the British Columbia Interior has become a year ‘round preoccupation. Spring, summer and fall have become characterized in many regions by wildfire fighting, smoke concentrations and evacuation alerts and orders.
In the winter, when the fires are finally subdued, the work shifts to designing systems on a landscape level, to help prevent fires from spreading and reducing their impacts on people, communities and infrastructure.
It can be a daunting process, as the wildfires have become larger and more unpredictable in their behaviours. Before the end of August 2018, wildfires had burned about 13,000 square kilometres of forest land in B.C., eclipsing the previous record set just one year earlier. Just how many of those square kilometres represent losses from the working forests inventory varies from region to region. But on the heels of the mountain pine beetle epidemic and with the warming climate stimulating insect populations endemic to other species, the fires are creating significant negative impacts on the forest industry’s near and mid-term timber supply prospects.
Local governments on several levels are taking on increasing responsibilities to do what they can to mitigate the often devastating effects wildfires have on the landscape. The governments work in concert with the province and the forest industry which in most areas in the interior is a major employer and key contributor to the local and regional economies.
The Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK) has adopted a planned and co-ordinated approach toward wildfire mitigation.
“The Regional District of Central Kootenay is located in southeastern B.C. and is a very mountainous area,” outlined Nora Hannon, wildfire mitigation supervisor for the RDCK, based in Nelson. There are long, deep lakes between the mountains and the area is heavily forested with mixed timber stands of fir, cedar and pine. Wildfires have always been an issue in this part of the Kootenays but not on the level of the last couple of record-setting years, explained Hannon. “It’s definitely a concern.”
She pointed out that historically the regional district concentrated on small operational treatments to retard forest fire spread and its potential effects on regional communities. “Then more recently elected officials mandated wildfire mitigation measures on the landscape.” It has resulted in more regional co-ordination with creation of wildfire protection plans.
The RDCK has been successful in applying for and receiving funding for wildfire mitigation projects from the Forest Enhancement Society of B.C. The agency was formed by the B.C. government in February 2016 with the objective of enhancing forest resilience to wildfire and climate change. The Forest Enhancement Society began with an $85 million funding allowance.
The trend now is toward prescriptions and treatments on a larger scale, continued Hannon. The process involves considerable consultation with other groups and government agencies including the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operation and Rural Development, forest licencees, utilities and first nations. “We’re building off that collaborative planning process through pilot projects with district licencees for on site level prescriptions in 2019,” she added.
With so many parts of the B.C. Interior smoke-filled for often weeks at a time during the last two summers, the public is urging governments at all levels to define and mandate a cohesive policy toward wildfire mitigation. The issue was the subject for several resolutions presented by local governments to the 2018 Union of B.C. Municipalities’ annual conference. The resolutions ranged from calling on the province to fund rural and First Nations fire departments—often the first responders to fire risks—to urging the provincial government to re-assume its responsibilities for managing Crown land. The present situation has the offloading of responsibilities to local governments ill-equipped and underfunded to handle them.
It was the Elephant Hill wildfire of 2017 that traumatized the community of Clinton, located in the Thompson-Nicola Region, and led to the creation of a blueprint for wildfire recovery. The Elephant Hill fire originated near Ashcroft and travelled north and up and on to the south Cariboo plateau and the village of Clinton. For about 49 days, Highway 97, the main route north, was subject to closures and its residents directed by evacuation alerts and orders. The wildfire took about 84 days to contain, by which time it had consumed about 192,000 hectares.
The Village of Clinton hired two consulting firms to help it form a Wildfire Recovery Plan for the village after assessing the economic, environmental and social impacts the fire caused: Iverson & Mackenzie Biological Consultants, Lac La Hache, B.C. and R.W. Gray Consulting Ltd., of Chilliwack, B.C.
Economic drivers impacted by the fire included West Fraser’s Chasm sawmill and the Clinton & District Community Forest. Both sustained substantial fibre supply losses. The community forest sustained an estimated 15 per cent reduction in timber supply.
The recovery plan’s first recommendation for the short and medium term was to: “Implement wildfire protection strategies within the Village of Clinton, bylaws and policies to protect and safeguard property in the village boundary from urban interface wildfire.”
Wildfire mitigation strategies are just that: exercises in damage control. In small, rural communities in British Columbia, often with limited access to resources but surrounded by forests, that can be especially true.
The Alkali Lake wildfire destroyed 21 homes this past summer in the isolated community of Telegraph Creek in northwestern B.C. The fire was driven by drought conditions and high winds and as often happens in such circumstances, it merged with four other smaller wildfires in the area, creating a 120,000 hectares conflagration. Up to 160 firefighters did everything they could to save the buildings. The historic and attractive community alongside the Stikine River, about 120 kilometres southwest of Dease Lake, has been home to the Tahltan people for centuries.
As late as this past October, after 10 weeks of enforced exile, most of the approximately 300 residents were still waiting to go home. Apart from the lost houses, most other homes in the community are fire and smoke damaged. Danger trees have largely been removed and the septic system repaired. But the safety of the water system was still uncertain, hazardous construction materials exposed by the fire needed attention and the insurance assessments had to be completed before remedial construction could begin.
The Alkali Lake wildfire also exposed a jurisdictional glitch between the provincial and federal governments for emergency funding for fire fighting on reserve lands. Both levels of government have pledged to resolve the issue. The evacuation order was lifted for Telegraph Creek on Nov. 15 and residents were told they would finally be allowed to go home, but it was a long 102 days of waiting.
On the Cover:
Saskatchewan’s Freedom Logging harvests about 283,000 cubic metres annually, primarily for the Tolko OSB plant near Meadow Lake, and the logging outfit has a long association with John Deere equipment, including Deere skidders, as the backbone of their logging fleet. Read all about the operation beginning on page 44 of this issue. (Cover photo by Tony Kryzanowski)
Fighting wildfires—at the community level
Local governments in B.C. are doing what they can to reduce the devastating effects wildfires can have on forests—and the communities within those forests.
Solid safety record on steep slopes
B.C. coastal logging operation CoastFibre has invested big time in steep slope logging equipment—and that investment has paid off in a solid safety record.
BC Saw Filers’ Convention coming up
Logging and Sawmilling Journal previews the upcoming BC Saw Filers’ Convention, to be held in Kamloops, B.C. April 25 to 27, which promises to be a great exhibition of all the latest in technology, products and services in saw filing.
Top Lumber Producers – Who’s on Top?
Logging and Sawmilling Journal’s exclusive annual listing of Canada’s Top Lumber Producers, produced in co-operation with industry consultants, FEA Group.
Fitting all the pieces together ...
Working with a solid crew—and employing Tigercat, Rottne and Log Max equipment—New Brunswick logger Carter Dixon is finding he has all the pieces for a successful logging operation.
Dealing with substance abuse…in the sawmill
Ontario sawmill reps have identified substance abuse as the top health and safety risk in the workplace—and now have some action suggestions on how to deal with it.
Building the base…
Saskatchewan’s Freedom Logging started operations in the jaws of the economic downturn, and has gradually built its volume—and its equipment base—to the point that it now has more than triple the cut that it started with, in 2008.
Ontario logger Dave Quehl has made the move into cut-to-length harvesting, and his equipment line-up has evolved—with a Caterpillar 521B tracked harvester with a Quadco 5660 head and John Deere 1510E forwarder now fitting the bill.
Catching a great wood products market
New Brunswick’s GL Wood Products has established a very unique market niche: producing lumber components for fish boxes for shipping smoked and salted fish to overseas markets.
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 and FPInnovations.