It’s summertime in British Columbia. The scene is becoming all too familiar. The sticky smell of smoke from wildfires hangs in the air and a grey haze hangs over communities with a red, glowing sun breaking through. The news is filled with fire stories and the devastating short- and long-term impacts for people, communities, forests, and the economy. People anxiously check forecasts, searching for the relief rain and cooler temperatures can bring.
Is this B.C.’s “new normal?” Why does every summer’s fire season seem to be worse than the last?
A simple answer is climate change. It’s hard to ignore the record-setting heat that Western Canada and, in particular, British Columbia is experiencing this summer. But it is also much more complicated than just one factor.
Our forests are increasingly old and unhealthy. A big reason is aggressive fire control; B.C. has become really good at managing and snuffing out wildfires over recent decades, which quickly reduced the burned area.
In addition, we, correctly, prioritized the harvesting of diseased forests. Millions of hectares of Lodgepole Pine were killed by Mountain Pine Beetle over the last 30 years. Historically, large, stand-replacing fires would have burned these diseased forests. It was part of the cycle of nature.
The combination of fire control and priority harvesting minimized fires, but left a legacy of trees living longer, that are now highly susceptible to catastrophic fire.
A third reason is increasing forest management restrictions. Indigenous knowledge was ignored, and forest management and harvesting incessantly attacked by activists.
Harvesting of the renewable resource was bad and “protecting” trees was good. Actively managing the ever-changing landscape was forgotten.
New parks were established, constraints were added to hide harvesting from public view and reduce harvesting near communities. Reserves for old growth management areas and a host of other values were added.
All these changes came with the premise that these areas could be protected in their current state for perpetuity.
History has shown that “protecting” specific forests from harvesting does not stop change and fire.
The 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons provide proof. The 2.57 million hectares burned in 2017-18 included:
— 400,000 hectares of parks,
— 180,000 ha. of Old Growth Management Areas
— 400,000 hectares of designated wildlife management areas.
— 100,000 hectares designated as visual sensitive landscapes
That was only the tree side of the story. More than 65,000 British Columbians were evacuated from their homes and the economic impact (loss of timber, community damage, lost businesses, etc.) was dire.
Despite the history, British Columbia, in all likelihood, will soon designate hundreds of thousands of hectares as off-limits to forest management to protect caribou habitat. And old growth protesters are clamouring for more forests to be set aside.
We can lower the fire risk by changing our forest management approach to provide a more natural, resilient landscape.
The wildfires of 2017-18 were estimated to have released 380 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.
British Columbia emits roughly 67 million tonnes of carbon annually (excluding wildfires).
To reduce climate change, we look at ways of reducing carbon emissions and increase means of storing carbon.
Instead of smoke-filled skies releasing carbon, increasing forest harvesting presents a significant opportunity to reduce wildfire carbon emissions and elevate carbon storage through newly regenerated forests and lumber.
Fire has been part of our forest ecosystems for thousands of years.
An immediate change we can make is to use the forest industry’s harvesting power and expertise to emphasize cutting the fire risk adjacent to our communities and salvage burned timber.
Political leadership will be needed to place community safety as the highest priority and significantly streamline the forest management regulatory process.
On the ground, we can cut fire breaks and reduce the density and age of trees by creating harvested openings, thinning trees and using controlled surface fires. This process will require funding, as not all of the trees will be economically useable for forest products.
A long-term solution would require a paradigm shift in forest management. On average, 190,000 hectares are harvested by industry annually in B.C. In the last decade, an average of 349,000 ha. (over 850,000 ha. in 2021) were burned by wildfire, almost double what is currently harvested.
Why not flip the numbers? Increase the harvested area and reduce uncontrolled fire on the landscape significantly.
We can reduce wildfires by actively reducing the age and density of our forests by using science, indigenous knowledge, forest harvesting, changing forest management legislation, and prioritizing adaptive management across the forest landscape.
How many summers do we have to endure before we act? What are we waiting for?
Murray Wilson lives in Vernon and is a retired Registered Professional Forester with over 30 years experience in the B.C. forest sector. He has worked for government and forest companies.