BY PETER EWART
Forest fires in British Columbia have long been a major concern for residents of the province, as well as for those who live and work in the bush. And this concern was amplified last summer with the major fires that raged through much of the Central Interior. Thus, it was fitting that the recent Cumulative Impacts Research Consortium Forum at UNBC had a session specifically on “Wildfire preparedness and cumulative impacts,” given that forest fires are both a cumulative impact in themselves and often come about because of other cumulative impacts.
In the session, Madeline Maley, of the BC Wildfire Service, noted that the fires last summer, which encompassed 1.2 million hectares, were the largest in recorded history with the cost amounting to $560 million, a figure which does not take into account forest rehabilitation and recovery. Paradoxically, the number of fires (1300) was significantly lower than the usual 1800 and reflects a trend in North America of fewer but much larger, hotter (and more difficult to contain) fires.
Ms. Maley listed a number of measures being put forward by the BC Wildfire Service in light of the fires last summer. These include ramping up wildfire science and research, increasing public awareness, integration among stakeholders, and most important, partnerships with First Nations and communities. She did comment that it is a stroke of luck that only BC had major forest fires last summer. If Alberta or other provinces had them, resources would have been seriously strained.
In his presentation, Dominick DellaSala, Chief scientist of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, talked about how forest fires are a natural part of the environment, that burned areas are not ecological disasters, but a means by which nature “resets” itself, something which has been going on for thousands of years.
There a number of factors that are affecting the increased size and heat intensity of forest fires in North America. According to DellaSala, the big ones are climate change and “how we treat the landscape.” More specifically, he believes that clearcutting exacerbates the problem because too much wood waste is left behind and plantation style forests with tight rows of trees are more vulnerable. Contrary to what some say, he argues that clearcutting does not mimic natural forest fires, but rather interrupts natural processes. One solution he puts forward is to retain native old growth forests which sequester large amounts of carbon. Reducing fiber intake though, can result in job losses and poses a dilemma for communities. However, he remains optimistic that a “win – win” situation can be created by developing a “restoration” economy, a rational renewable plan, and adopting “fire smart” practices.
Sonja Leverkus, CEO of Shifting Mosaics Consulting / Northern Fire WoRx, runs a company that conducts prescribed fire and path burn grazing in the province. In her presentation, she put forward that we need to adopt the concept of a “fire absorbent landscape,” and that the issue is that we need to think about our whole ecosystem and how to live in it with fire.”
Speaking to the health side of the forest fire issue, Doctor Raina Fumerton, of Northern Health explained that the most serious issue that Northern Health and other health authorities faced during the 2017 fires was the massive relocation of upwards of 10,000 people and all the issues associated with that. Other issues included monitoring air quality and water safety and dealing with major power outages. She pointed out that, because forest fire season appears to be lasting longer, research will have to be done on what are the longterm health effects of the smoke.
Many of the issues raised in this session are expected to be addressed by the independent wildfire review commissioned by the NDP provincial government. The review will be led by Maureen Chapman, Hereditary chief of the Skawahlook First Nation, and George Abbott, former Liberal cabinet minister. As Madeline Maley commented in her presentation, “last summer was a wakeup call.”
Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org