Updated: Oct 18
An Editorial Opinion – Right From The Stump, October 18, 2023
There has been plenty written on this year’s horrendous wildfire season. It’s justified, since it has been the worst year for hectares burnt, record value of insurance claims for destroyed property, and most sadly, the lives lost by those working to fight wildfire. Merchantable timber and non-timber natural values were burnt including old growth forests, wildlife habitat and parks – the fires were non-discerning to what we value.
So far this year wildfires have burnt 2,848,397 hectares in the province according to the BC Wildfire Service. That’s almost the size of Vancouver Island and more than the hectares burnt in the big wildfire years of 2017 and 2018 - combined! Put it all together, since 2017 wildfires have burnt almost 7% of British Columbia or for comparison, more than the province of Nova Scotia!
The data speaks for itself, the trend for British Columbia’s forests is now more than a fledgling crisis waving a red flag, it’s our new reality, and will require decisive and urgent action to prevent what is the likely outcome…
Fires burnt everywhere this year in the province, but it is worth noting that 78% of the area within wildfire perimeters occurred in the northeastern quadrant of the province. That said, damage to property was concentrated to Shuswap and Okanagan areas resulting in over $720 million in insurance claims.
While large areas of the northeast region experienced wildfire this year, it does not suggest that wildfire is an isolated problem. Each year the geographic distribution appears to shift. The following map of British Columbia shows the general concentration of wildfires by location varies each year. Where will the next large fire occur? And will those forests survive?
Much of the BC interior is described as being a fire-origin ecosystem – meaning fire is part of the ecology of the region, yet for the last 100 years we have been doing our best to exclude fire. It is generally a safe bet that if there is a lodgepole pine forest nearby, then at one time there was a fire there, given this species’ natural regeneration relies on fire.
The evidence is abundant that the status quo on wildfire management is no longer a viable path. In many respects, we may be quickly arriving at a pivot point on forest management driven by wildfire. The BC government has recently announced a task force on emergency management during wildfire, but the task force will not address what is desperately needed to enhance our forests’ resiliency to fire.
HOW MANY MORE REPORTS DO WE NEED TO CONFIRM THERE IS A PROBLEM?
If it sounds like I am being alarmist, I will kindly refer you to several provincial reports prepared over the last two decades that all convey similar messages:
The common themes are that a long history of fire suppression has led to fire-based ecosystems becoming overloaded with fuel (woody debris, branches, dense stands) and future fires are anticipated to be more frequent and larger. Fuel load mitigation is a must to avert further disaster. Much of what we need to know has all been documented by successive reviewers, and yet not much has been done.
A CALL FOR ACTION - THE FOREST PRACTICES BOARD
The latest report, Forest and Fire Management in BC: Toward Landscape Resilience, a special report by the British Columbia Forest Practices Board (FPB) published in June 2023 takes the most direct and boldest step for a call to action. I would highly recommend a read of this report. Some direct and not subtle quotes from the FPB include:
“If the way forests and fire are managed doesn’t change, BC will face many more catastrophic wildfire seasons”
“Bold and immediate action is required by the provincial government to align policies and programs across all levels of government with a vision of landscape resilience and human co-existence with fire.”
“The Board’s view that a vision and action plan for restoring landscape resilience and co-existing with fire is needed so that all parts of government work together toward a set of common goals.”
“Now is the time to be bold – not for relying on incremental adjustments.”
The FPB recommends that provincial government lead the development and implementation of a vision and action plan for landscape resilience that will align policies and programs across all levels of government to enable landscape fire management.
A RE-THINK ON CONSERVATION
To substantially enhance the resilience of our forested landscapes to fire, it will require substantive change by government and by industry on how to manage our forests, and just as equally, it will require changes to our traditional notions of conservation. The latter of which is particularly problematic as the current orientation in policy is towards preservation, with Premier Eby recently confirming support for 2.1 million hectares of old growth forest harvest deferrals, including Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) identified areas as well as other areas supported for deferral.
Of those old growth deferral areas, 123,000 hectares or 6% was burnt this year. Approximately 408,000 hectares of all old seral stage forests (aka old growth) or 3.6% of BC’s old growth was burnt this year. Areas inside parks and wildlife habitat were burnt this year as well.
The FPB puts it succinctly,
“…unmanaged reserves are especially vulnerable to burning because of the amount of forest fuels that have accumulated over time.”
And the FPB writes it best…
”Members of the public want conservation of certain value, such as old growth; at the same time, these same values are at risk due to climate change and wildfire threat. Land managers cannot protect the values that the public want conserved by simply plotting them on a map. Conservation of values must involve managing for shifting dynamics on the landscape, which means actively managing the values today and planning to create or recruit new values (e.g., attributes important to old -growth forest, caribou habitat, or ungulate winter range) in the future somewhere else on the landscape.”
This suggests areas we have protected from commercial timber harvesting will still need forest management if we want such areas to endure; therefore, our society’s notion of conservation through preservation without intervention will need to change.
HOW MUCH FUEL MITIGATION WORK IS THERE TO DO?
Gordon Hoekstra of the Vancouver Sun wrote that the province does not have goals on how much land to target for fuel mitigation treatments or associated timelines.
The FPB cites the Provincial Strategic Threat Analysis (PSTA) which indicates that 39 million hectares of public land in BC is at high or extreme threat of wildfire. It’s a fairly broad perspective that essentially suggests the vast majority of the BC Interior’s forests are under threat from wildlife; however, it is an impractical target to aim towards. For comparison the total forested area in the province is 55 million hectares.
There is the Crown Land Wildfire Risk Reduction Planning Guide 2023-2024 which provides a summary of wildfire risk reduction priority based on a cross-section of 2021 PSTA and Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) risk classes 1 & 2, which shows 955,843 hectares require potential treatment. Similarly, a Postmedia investigation last year referred to a provincial source that there are 1,100,0000 hectares for priority treatment areas.
The provincial government hopefully will have the funding, but the industry is key to implementation. The timber harvesting contracting community has the equipment and personnel to undertake this work. Forest products companies have the manufacturing capacity to use the fibre generated from treatments in its sawmills, pellet mills and pulp mills.
Unfortunately, therein lies another major strategic problem. As noted in a recent article co-authored by Jim Girvan and myself, industry capacity is shrinking and will continue to do if something is not done to address this trend. If we lose another pulp mill or two, or a pellet mill, finding a home for low value fibre from fuel mitigation treatments will be more difficult. The pulp sector has indicated willingness to take more burnt wood than it has in the past. Furthermore, a smaller manufacturing sector will mean less contractors and their equipment to conduct stand thinning or other fuel management treatments that are required.
To get the most out of the industry’s role in supporting landscape resiliency efforts, a comprehensive strategy demonstrating the potential long term funding stream(s) as well as the potential fibre supply that might come from fuel reduction would be necessary.
As we take a hard look at forest management with respect to wildfire, I think there will be shifts including in silviculture investment, silviculture systems, stocking standards, and possibly even forest tenure. Such shifts will only happen with First Nations as partners and a provincial government willing to walk down the path together.
WHAT’S IT GOING TO COST?
For argument sake, let’s say there is a minimum of 1,100,000 hectares that should receive priority fuel reduction treatments. According to the FPB, $72 million has been spent to treat just 26,000 hectares since 2018 which implies a per hectare cost of $2,769. If that’s the case, we are talking about $3 billion to get this work done.
That’s a lot of funding and a huge amount of area! In comparison to the expenses listed below makes such an investment look to be a bit more feasible, especially if deployed over multiple years.
For scale, BC government’s 2023/24 budget has $81 billion in total expenditures.
The BC government projects $2.8 billion in carbon tax revenues this fiscal year, but hardly invests any of that into climate change initiatives. Would it not make sense to spend a sizeable portion of those carbon tax revenues on something that can directly reduce carbon emissions by reducing the intensity and size of forest fires? And for that matter support communities, generate employment and keep the forest industry operating?
Contributing to BC government’s expenditures this year is $966 million to fight wildfires. While there will always need to be some fire suppression costs, it doesn’t take to many large wildfire seasons to match the expense for fuel mitigation. The combined suppression costs of the four large wildfire seasons over the last seven years was $2.9 billion, suggesting a hypothetical payback is possible with proactive investments. The proverb that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies when it comes to wildfires.
What about carbon credits or conservation financing to help fund this effort? It is an enterprising question that has potential. Unfortunately, it makes for a chicken and the egg situation - we need to demonstrate some landscape stability through fuel mitigation efforts before investors would be willing to risk their capital.
In addition, our legislative and regulatory framework for Crown land applications is not sufficient to embrace this alternative source of funding yet. Either way, to do whatever needs to be done to bring about carbon or conservation financing, it will take time.
And one last comment on funding, even if there was $3 billion made available tomorrow, there is no way there is enough equipment capacity and expertise to plan and implement fuel mitigation treatments to spend all that in one year. However, we need to start making a significantly larger effort than what has been undertaken.
ACTIONS TO BE TAKEN NOW!
The FPB calls for the provincial government to lead the way on landscape fire management, but it may take years before such initiatives take hold. Just look at the forest landscape planning process – it’s very slow. The evidence (and reports) on wildfires suggests there is an urgency to ramp up efforts on managing fuel on the landscape if we aim to protect what we value. In the interim, the BC government should take the following actions.
1. There is large amount of burnt timber that needs to be dealt with. A year ago, the government introduced Wildfire Salvage Opportunity Agreements which enabled the direct award of forestry licences to First Nations for salvaging timber damaged by wildfire. In addition to these new licences, there is still a need for a streamlined (or rapid response) cutting permit issuance process for wildfire damaged wood given the amount of area that has been burnt.
Burnt timber has a fleeting shelf life as its quality degrades. Anecdotally I have been told that burnt stands in Alberta this year are already being harvested just weeks after the wildfire. In contrast, in British Columbia, I have been told that some stands burnt in 2021 are still awaiting cutting permit approvals. The faster salvage activities can take place, the sooner these areas can have any remaining fuel removed, reduce the forest health risks from insects thriving in burnt stands, and re-plant to restart the carbon absorption cycle.
Should burnt timber salvage permits be given priority for processing over green wood?
2. The Forest Enhancement Society of BC (FESBC) has been an effective delivery agent of BC government funding. This year FESBC is delivering on $50 million worth of projects relating offsetting costs for low-value fibre extraction as well as for fuel mitigation. In fact, a project with the Williams Lake First Nation for fuel management treatment reduced intensity and spread of lightning strikes in July 2023. What was the return on investment if that treatment had not been done and a large fire had developed?
It should be a no brainer to increase the funding to FESBC and others to help offset the extraction and delivery costs of low value fibre from burnt areas and to rapidly expand the amount of area for fuel mitigation projects, including stand thinning, brushing and prescribed burning projects.
Not only should the dollar amount increase substantially, but there should also be a multi-year commitment made in such funding to allow effective planning for treatments and for contractors to develop business plans for this type of work. With certainty of funding, contractors could be hiring (or retaining) and training employees as well as acquiring equipment best suited for this type of work.
The win-win scenarios of these investments by the BC government should be obvious in light of the continued shrinkage of the forest industry, the hopeful avoidance of additional carbon emissions, employment generation for First Nations and rural communities and the need for restoration of ecosystem resilience.
3. Enable an easier process for the various types of prescribed burning as a post-harvest treatment following removal of retrievable fibre. Continue to embrace indigenous practices including cultural burning. As the saying goes, one has to spend money to make money, so in terms of carbon, it appears we have to release a bit of carbon through prescribed burning to avoid the massive amount of carbon released during major firestorms!
4. The Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) is a two-kilometre minimum buffer zone area around structures. A risk class framework has been created to assist with wildfire threat mitigation priorities and opportunities to increase community resiliency. Until the recommendation of the FPB for landscape fire management is embraced, targeting fuel mitigation treatments including fire guarding in higher WUI risk classes would make a good first step as a place to focus efforts.
To some it may be counter-intuitive to believe that to promote and protect both conservation and economic values of our forested landscapes, intervention through more harvesting activities (thinning etc), not less, will be the solution. The alternative is the status quo, no change nor action; we are already bearing witness as to how that’s working out.
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Written By David Elstone, RPF
Publisher, View From The Stump newsletter
Managing Director, Spar Tree Group Inc.