Devastating Forest Fire Season Shows Urgent Need For A Shift In Fire And Forest Management, Towards Co-Existing With Fire

by | Sep 1, 2023 | 2023, Logging & Sawmilling Journal, September/October, The Last Word

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.

Jim Stirling

Author

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