“Fire prevention and suppression polices over the last century have led to a buildup of fuels in our forests, and have contributed to the loss of natural firebreaks in places. These shifts, combined with forestry policies and climate change effects, greatly increase the risk of catastrophic wildfire.” – Keith Atkinson, Chair, BC Forest Practices Board (BCFPB)
Forestry experts have long warned that forest practices and government policies are intensifying wildfire risk. But industry and government have disregarded numerous studies and persistent calls for action. Practices and policies are little changed. The results have been disastrous as expanses of forest, extensive infrastructure and numerous homes have been razed, and as the air has been fouled and fire suppression costs have multiplied. Increasingly, wildfire ravages more land in less time.
On June 26, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Service, reported that over 7,600,000 hectares had burned in Canada to date in 2023. That surpassed the previous annual record of 7,560,000 hectares in 1989. Six months of 2023 saw more area destroyed than 12 months of the record year. The average fire in 2023 was four times larger than in 1989. Extreme fire seasons have been common this century.
In British Columbia to July 4, 2023, 621 fires burned 1,042,000 hectares. In the record year of 2018, 1,354,000 hectares were lost to 2,117 fires. The area burned this year is almost certainly on track to exceed the record year, with most of the two peak fire months yet to be added to the tally. It is also likely that BC’s loss to wildfire will top 2 million hectares. Some hope remains that extensive summer rain will intervene, but not much.
The BCFPB on June 29 released their report, “Forest and Fire Management in BC”. The report relates that the 2021 wildfire season resulted in $800 million in fire suppression costs and indirect costs as high as $24 billion. Costs include damage to private property and infrastructure and extensive loss of soil productivity, timber supply and wildlife habitat. Since 2018, the province has spent $72 million on fuel reduction measures, says the report, “almost exclusively” within the wildland urban interface (WUI).
The budget for mitigation is dwarfed by fire suppression costs, and is almost non-existent relative to the extensive costs of wildfire, as areas impacted and severity of impact greatly expand. The largest fire in BC history now rages in BC’s far north. The Donnie Creek Wildfire, at over 570,000 hectares, has burned an area equivalent to that of BC’s entire fifth largest fire season. It is expected to continue to burn through to the end of the season. The destruction of timber and wildlife habitat is already immense.
Mike Flannigan, a professor of fire science at Thompson River University, told the CBC that without climate change this fire season would have been impossible. “The warmer it gets, the more efficient the atmosphere is at sucking the moisture of the fuels … on the forest floor,” he noted. BC forest scientists fear a loss in the diversity of tree species, and expect vast forested areas will be replaced by grasslands.
Flanigan co-authored a study concluding, “Dryer and warmer weather, will increase the incidence of short-interval reburning and amplify the ecological changes such events cause, as wildfire activity and post-fire drought increase synergistically.” This demands rapid action by government and industry.
Promisingly, techniques to mitigate risks in forests and reduce wildfire events exist. Governments need only adopt them, and of course pay for them. Forestry experts recommend that fuel reduction measures must be expanded and targeted beyond the WUI. Provincial policy and regulation should require all areas harvested to be reforested, not just with the most economically viable species, but with those species native to the area to improve resilience. Destructive forestry activities, like widespread salvage logging after disasters, should be prohibited. These measures and others provide only part of the solution.
The BCFPB report recommends – more accurately, urges – a comprehensive approach called landscape fire management (LFM). “LFM is a way to proactively mitigate the risk of catastrophic wildfires on the broader landscape. It is a restoration approach to addressing forest fuel buildup and improving landscape resilience,” the report reads. “Achieving this paradigm shift will require bold and immediate action by the provincial government to align policies and programs across all levels of government with a vision of landscape resilience and co-existence with fire.”
LFM will require major effort and a significant budget. Should the BC government continue to avoid the responsibility and the expense, the environment and economy of this province will be irretrievably damaged.
Bruce W Uzelman
I grew up in Paradise Hill, a village in Northwestern Saskatchewan. I come from a large family. My parents instilled good values, but yet afforded us, my seven siblings and I, much freedom to do the things we wished to do. I spent my early years exploring the hills and forests and fields surrounding the village, a great way to come of age.
I attended the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. I considered studying journalism at one point, but did not ultimately pursue that. However, I obtained a Bachelor of Arts, Advanced with majors in Economics and Political Science in 1982.