Devastating forest fire season shows urgent need for a shift in fire and forest management, towards co-existing with fire

By Jim Stirling

Wildfires have laid siege to British Columbia in 2023. Residents outside the province’s Lower Mainland region have endured a prolonged and surreal environment of fear and uncertainty, filled with toxic smoke and flurries of evacuation alerts and orders.

As a result, residents have prepared for the worst; many a bag of valuables and survival gear has been stashed behind the couch, ready to grab and flee at a moment’s notice.

The byproducts of a warming climate are being demonstrated through extremes, from droughts to floods. The unpredictable wildfires are tough on people, the landscape and all the natural populations it sustains.

B.C.’s forest fire statistics have been re-written on an almost daily basis during the months of spring and summer. Land lost to wildfires in 2017, 2018 and 2021 set records—but the terrible trio’s toll was eclipsed by July in 2023, the beginning of what is traditionally the start of the worst two forest fire months of the season.

BC Wildfire Service experts suspect lightning ignited the Donnie Creek blaze in May. It had consumed more than 6,000 square kilometres of forest land by July, the largest forest fire in the land. Despite ebbs and flows during the summer, the wildfire service anticipates the blaze will continue burning into the winter—and perhaps through it.

The massive fire didn’t generate many headlines in the province’s population centers. Its location is why. The initial lightning strike was deep in the forest southeast of Fort Nelson, north of Fort St. John, in the Trutch River valley in northeastern B.C. The nearest community is Prophet River, around Mile 208 on the Alaska Highway. The Donnie Creek fire hadn’t destroyed any permanent structures—there aren’t any in its path. But it obliterated all evidence of historic occupation, including grave sites. The fire has wiped out oil and gas wells, pipelines and compressor stations. And a countless volume of timber. Canfor’s Fort St. John sawmill and Louisiana-Pacific’s OSB plant have lost timber cutting rights to the Donnie Creek fire.

The warming climate’s interconnected impacts on the forest industry are the focus of a new report. Forest Fire Management in B.C: Toward Landscape Resilience, was prepared by the B.C. Forest Practices Board (BCFPB) and it was published in June 2023. The BCFPB is the province’s independent watchdog for sound forest and range practices. The report says there’s an urgent need for a different and coordinated approach to forest fire management on B.C.’s Crown land. It points out fire can be a friend and not always the wildfire foe. Fire, when used judiciously, can help sustain a productive and healthy B.C. forest landscape as it did historically.

Living with fire was a natural part of the landscape’s rhythms before the establishment of industrial scale forest practices. The BCFPB report noted the policies that were applied in B.C. during the 20th century resulted in densely forested areas and an increase in the amounts and distribution of forest fuels. The report says an alarming 39 million hectares—or 45 per cent—of the public land base in B.C. is of high or extreme threat of wildfire. As well, fire seasons are becoming longer, the risk of ignition higher and areas are burning more severely when wildfires do occur, continues the report.

“There is an urgent need to shift forest and fire management, policies, objectives and policies toward co-existing with fire on the landscape,” says the report. “Restoring landscape resilience is required and the first step toward that is to introduce landscape fire management into the land management framework in B.C.”

The report continues: “Bold and immediate action is required by the provincial government to align policies and programs across all levels of government with a vision of landscape resilience and human co-existence with fire.”

As the steward for public lands in B.C., the provincial government is the logical leader to help protect and enhance them. But the incumbent NDP government’s land use policies recently have been mixed toward the forest sector’s concerns. The deferrals of more land for longer to any form of harvesting in “old growth” forests is an example.

The BCFPB report’s authors understand the challenges posed for having the consistent political commitment required for the recruiting and training of the people needed in a fiercely competitive labour market.

“Increasing access to formal education, training and professional development is critical to achieving the scale of landscape fire management required to improve landscape resiliency.”

The board noted the historical roles played in natural fire control by species like aspen and birch. But hardwoods are not remotely desired by forest companies geared to industrial scaled production of softwood lumber.

Despite the implementation challenges, the BCFPB report is a valuable contribution. The document’s recommendations are pertinent and timely. Suggestions for working practically with nature can help restore a badly damaged landscape diversity in B.C. That in turn will indicate paths forward for the forest industry to continue its renewal and vigour.

Logging and Sawmilling Journal

September/October 2023

On the Cover:
The Village of Valemount, B.C., had a shrewd idea about how to expand the community’s role in the forest industry, involving getting into the sawmilling business, and using the village’s assets. That idea is now reality with the start-up of a sawmill in the community-owned Valemount Industrial Park which is being supplied with wood from the Valemount Community Forest. Read all about the new sawmill, and how the village is having its forestry vision achieved, beginning on page 28 of this issue (Cover photo courtesy of the Valemount Sawmill/Valemount Industrial Park).

In the driver’s seat …
The forest industry needs more women—and young people—in the driver’s seat of logging trucks, and there are programs out there to work on getting them in the seats of those logging truck cabs.

Canadian element to new Louisiana lumber mill
One of the largest new sawmills in North America—the $240 million (U.S.) Bienville sawmill in Louisiana—will be starting up later this year, and there’s a Canadian element to the operation, both in its construction, and ownership.

New home for harvester production
Logging equipment manufacturer A. Landry Fabrication now has a new facility for turning out their state-of-the-art Landrich 2.0 harvesters.

Building a new kiln helps build stronger customer relationships
B.C. cedar mill Gilbert Smith Forest Products recently built a new state-of the-art Nyle dry kiln that is allowing it to dry their wood in-house, and help build stronger relationships with customers.

Finding—and keeping—quality people
Richard Poindexter, President and Senior Recruiter with Search North America (SNA), on how to attract—and retain—quality talent for your wood products company.

Valemount sawmill vision
The village of Valemount, B.C., is seeing a community vision fulfilled, with the start-up of a new sawmill that is sourcing its timber from the community forest.

Sure—and safe—logging approach
Alberta’s Sureway Logging reflects sure stability—and a safe approach, including an award-winning safety record—in an ever-changing forest industry world.

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 (CWFC) and FPInnovations.

The Last Word
The past devastating forest fire season shows the urgent need for a shift in fire and forest management, towards co-existing with fire, says Jim Stirling.


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