The summer of 2023 will go down as the year of smoke in North America, and while it would be easy to panic and predict the end of days, history teaches that this could easily be a one-off year, followed by a cool and rainy summer next year.
We just never know.
Thus is the unpredictable nature of weather. But there is no denying that 2023 will go down as the worst year for forest fires in recorded Canadian history. At a peak in June, some 3,003 fires had burned nearly eight million hectares, and there were 487 active wildfires, 253 of which were deemed “uncontrolled” by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.
What was particularly noteworthy about the past forest fire season was how widespread it was, with nearly every province within the boreal forest scrambling to fight fires. It truly was a national event—and not a good one.
It would be easy to blame Climate Change for this dire situation, and there is no doubt that it is causing more extreme weather patterns like long periods of drought. This contributed to the size of the fires that burned in 2023.
But we can do a better job of forest management in Canada to potentially minimize the size and spread of wildfires by creating more resilient forests. We’ve known about these forest management practices for decades, but have resisted making the change because it is more economical and easier to plant monocultures of same-age trees. One entry, one species—and we’re done. Now we see the consequences and folly of this reforestation policy, particularly in areas that naturally regenerate as mixedwood forests or conifer stands that regenerate with mixed species and ages.
But that’s a conversation for down the road. We have a more immediate challenge: developing a national strategy to salvage as much of the remaining merchantable wood fibre as possible that burned this summer before it decays. The time for action on that front is now—and fortunately we have a model to follow that we should be able to replicate, in this instance.
On the face of it, there is not a lot different between a forest that has been ravaged by wildfire and one that has been destroyed by pestilence like, for example, what occurred during the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation in British Columbia. Both destroyed large swaths of trees, but there is a window where some of that wood can be salvaged. Here we can lean on the example set in B.C. on how that province reacted during the beetle epidemic. While it wasn’t perfect, the province and industry collectively rolled up their sleeves and increased sawmilling capacity to produce as much dimensional lumber from salvaged timber as possible. That is exactly what is needed now. In fact, it could represent a possible second life for sawmills in some communities, providing a window of opportunity to consider other options to closure once the salvaged timber predictably diminishes.
There have been a number of sawmills closed across Canada lately, and while these mills may have older technology, in the right hands they could be just the ticket for manufacturing something from that cheap and burnt standing timber.
As was the case in B.C., this is also a huge—though short term—economic opportunity for loggers to become involved in this bonanza of cheap wood. No doubt provinces will be begging forest companies to salvage as much of that timber as possible over the next couple of years.
So that’s what’s needed in the short term.
The longer term is where really important forest management decisions need to be considered, and we may eventually have to thank the Americans for much-needed changes in how we manage our forests going forward. Just how long can we expect our American neighbours, who are the biggest purchasers of our wood products, to tolerate extreme smoky conditions—during their summer vacations—caused by massive Canadian forest fires?
It’s time to talk about developing reforestation plans where harvested mixedwood forests are returned to mixedwood forests, instead of converted into softwood monocultures. We also need to consider species and age variety in reforesting natural softwood sites, which makes them more fire-resilient as healthy, younger trees are less prone to fire.
We know these practices work to mitigate forest fires because thousands of years of forest management by Nature proves it. Fire is nothing new in the fire-origin boreal forest—in fact, it’s natural. What is new are changes to the natural forest succession that we have adopted in current reforestation practices, including fire suppression on a massive scale, and now we are starting to realize the consequences of this interference. It’s time for change in Canada if we don’t want gaps in the forest resource available to harvest in future, as well as an angry customer south of the border.