May 13, 2011

On the Forest Fire Front Line: One Ecologist’s Take on What it Will Take to Safeguard Communities


With one of the colder springs on record, many British Columbians quite naturally yearn for a good stretch of warm, dry weather.

But for many people in the province, prolonged periods of hotter and drier weather are often far from welcome.

That’s because when things get hot and dry they burn. And in many regions of British Columbia that may mean potentially deadly outcomes for residents in numerous communities as wildlfires sweep through forests on their borders.

With that in mind, fire ecologist Robert Gray has stepped forward with a timely critique of the provincial government’s wholly inadequate approach to reducing the significant risks that forest fires pose to numerous communities in BC – a critique that ought to be required reading for all provincial MLAs.

In 2003, one such fire destroyed 334 homes and numerous businesses near Kelowna and forced the evacuation of 45,000 people. In 2009, in events eerily similar to those in 2003, tens of thousands of British Columbians near Lillooet and Kelowna were forced to flee their homes as out-of-control wildfires moved with frightening speed toward their communities. All told, the efforts made to fight the hundreds of blazes to burn in each of those two fire seasons would cost taxpayers nearly $800 million.

What concerns Gray is that in the years since 2003 – and with a brutal reminder yet again in 2009 of the havoc that wildfires can cause – the BC government has seemingly yet to grasp the significance of making the substantive changes to forest policy and forest management in the province that would reduce the likelihood of catastrophic, community-threatening wildfires in future years.

Gray has spent a lot of time thinking about such things. In 2003, he was one of the co-authors of Firestorm 2003, a report by a panel of fire experts working under the direction of former Manitoba premier, Gary Filmon, who had been called upon by then BC premier Gordon Campbell to assess what happened in that year’s fire season and to make recommendations on a new way forward.

In a nutshell, what Gray and others recommended was the need to be proactive in managing perimeter forests. In such forests, there should be one key objective: to reduce forest fire risk through the systematic clearing or thinning of trees and brush. Doing so, the Filmon committee concluded, would reduce fuel loads, meaning that when – not if – future fires burned, they burned far less intensely and with far less risks to people and properties than would otherwise be the case.

Doing such work is not cheap, costing between $1,000 and $20,000 a hectare, although most areas can be treated in the $6,000-per-hectare range.

In response to the work of Gray and others, the province began putting money into treatment efforts, with an initial grant to the Union of BC Municipalities of $50 million, and more recently a further grant of $25 million. But as the province’s independent Forest Practices Board noted last year, provincial funding had by the beginning of 2010 resulted in the treatment of just 35,000 hectares of perimeter forestland, while the total area of such land in need of fuel reduction treatments was 1.7 million hectares, of which 685,000 hectares was considered “high risk” and in most immediate need of treatment.

At such rates of treatment, it will take well over a century to complete initial fuel-reduction efforts in forests where high fuel loads are a clear and present danger to communities, to say nothing of the fact that treatment efforts must be ongoing to be effective.

Making matters of even greater concern is that there is a real risk that we will see more forest fires in BC in future years, not less.

Higher average temperatures and site-specific periods of prolonged drier weather are widely predicted outcomes of climate change. In 1993, meteorologists and climatologists with the Canadian Forest Service warned that this could result in much longer forest fire seasons. Should atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations double by the year 2040, the average Canadian “fire season” would increase by 30 days – a prediction subsequently revised upward to 40 days and 50 days in the case of BC.

Another fact not well appreciated by British Columbians is that while the costs of fighting wildfires is formidable – averaging $150 million per year over the past 10 years for a total expenditure of $1.5 billion – the true costs of future fires could be far, far higher. It all depends where the fires burn and the damage that they cause. A good case in point is in California, a jurisdiction that like BC appears to be more and more susceptible to catastrophic wildfires due to the effects of climate change.

In 2003, three forest fires in California known as the Old, Grand Prix and Padua wildfire complex forced the evacuation of 100,000 residents and completely destroyed 787 properties. The total estimated costs to date in dealing with those fires, is $1.2 billion. Only 5 per cent of that price tag actually applied to fire suppression. Much of it went, instead, to addressing damaged community water supplies and to flood control efforts.

When the true costs of fires are considered spending money up-front to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic outcomes makes sound public policy sense. The question is, where does the money come from to do the job?

To start, the province might finally get serious about increasing the amount of money it charges forest companies logging trees on publicly owned lands. Right now, logging companies gain access to droves of publicly owned timber for a pittance – the equivalent of 25 cents for each telephone pole’s worth of wood.

But beyond that, more substantive policy changes are needed. Somehow we must find a sustainable means of getting those communities that are most at risk of wildfires to play a more central role in reducing fuel loads in the forests surrounding them, forests that they understand better than most.

Gray believes that the central policy change required is to shift our thinking about how certain public forests are managed and to whose benefit. Right now, just about every hectare of public forestland in the province outside of parks is deemed to be there for one purpose: to grow trees for the forest industry. Yet in the forests surrounding communities, optimum tree growth may run counter to the interests of protecting the public from the very real dangers of wildfires.

“If the provincial government placed all Crown land surrounding communities under local government jurisdiction and enacted laws and policies that de-emphasized timber production and prioritized fuel hazard reduction, then local government could both protect local homes and businesses and cover most of the costs of doing so by using the wood fibre to kick-start local bio-energy industries including district and home heating systems, as well as the manufacture of exportable bio-energy products such as pellets, biochar and biodiesel” Gray said in an opinion piece published in The Vancouver Sun. “This, in turn, would make local communities less reliant on provincial subsidies.”

Quite clearly, given changing conditions on the broader forest landscape, we’ll probably also have to get a lot more serious about other things too, such as prescribed or deliberately set fires to reduce the prospect of more catastrophic and uncontrollable wildfires.

Eight years after the devastating Kelowna fires, with another forest fire season upon us and a provincial government mired in debt and clearly adrift in forest policy, Gray’s ideas are worth considering.

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