British Columbia is poised to suffer a historically ruinous fire season and we have only ourselves to blame.
Warm, dry weather early in the season is part of the problem, to be sure. Climate change is likely making things worse. But B.C.’s history of fire suppression and outdated forest management has turned our forests into a tinderbox that grows more dangerous every year.
At this moment, 23 wildfires are burning out of control in B.C. with dozens more in various stages of being extinguished. Campfire prohibitions are either in effect or planned across B.C.
All this nearly a month before Canada Day weekend. It could be a long, hot, destructive summer.
Decades of fire suppression have resulted in huge amounts of fuel littering the forest floor, crowding out biodiversity and putting people at risk. By putting out every fire on the landscape, we are creating forests that are bristling with fuel just waiting for a spark.
Fire naturally occurs every five to 200 years in much of B.C. In the central Interior, many areas historically burn every five to 30 years. Under the right circumstances, fire is good. Fire is part of a natural process that rejuvenates grasslands and promotes biodiversity.
In much of the Interior, fire is an integral component of functioning and productive habitat for grizzly bears, moose, elk, mule deer, and sheep, creating food for wildlife by regenerating the soil and letting in sunlight, which creates ideal conditions for new plants and berries to grow.
Broadleaf trees are nature’s fuel break, slowing and reducing the intensity of fires; they also support biodiversity and provide moose with food. Unfortunately, B.C.’s outdated forest policies treat broadleaf trees like weeds in order to promote the growth of merchantable timber. In parts of B.C., we spray broadleaf trees with the herbicide glyphosate to kill them off on a massive scale.
What we do after a fire is vital. A post-fire landscape left untouched creates a natural fire break. As new plants and trees grow in, the burned trees that we leave standing are critical for moisture retention and temperature regulation in the soil. In as little as a year, burned areas sound like a symphony, teeming with life from bugs to birds to bears. But our forest practices typically prevent natural succession. Instead, we often log areas burned by fire as quickly as possible, because burned trees are harder to cut at the mill after a couple of years.
Logging after wildfire often leaves behind a barren landscape, with stunted native plants due to a lack of temperature regulation and moisture retention in the soil. Roads for logging invite invasive weeds. The lack of vegetation can also exacerbate erosion, flooding and sedimentation in our watersheds.
B.C. has been so focused on cutting down and selling trees, it has failed to account for the costs of fire suppression, loss of biodiversity, food security, and tourism. Forestry could play a critical role in mitigating the effects of wildfire by reducing fuel loads and thinning forests. But that will require a new way of thinking. Until we overhaul forest management, wildfires and smoky skies will become the norm. We need to forge a new relationship with our forests, watersheds and wildlife, focusing on sustainability and resiliency. Otherwise, with climate change, these problems only get worse.
The Ministry of Forests is slowly moving in the right direction with a service plan that has objectives for a growing number of cultural and prescribed burns in partnership with First Nations. But as a proportion of the provincial budget, funding for renewable resource management is just a fraction of its historical level, declining by 75 per cent between 1993 and today. We cannot conserve our land, water, air and wildlife on a shoestring budget.
We have important choices to make: Keep putting fires out and treating native tree species, such as aspen, like weeds until the fuel loading is so bad that the ensuing wildfires are virtually uncontrollable. Or we can invest in our landscapes, have controlled burns in the spring and fall, and let some fires burn to create a natural diverse landscape that mitigates high-intensity wildfires.
Jesse Zeman is Executive Director of the B.C. Wildlife Federation