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Here’s how BC can decrease its wildfire risk

First Nations have been using effective wildfire management strategies since before settlers arrived, but BC isn’t using them enough, experts say

The BC government is well aware of effective strategies it could use to prevent intense forest fires that have burned homes, cloaked the province in smoke and prompted it to call two states of emergency, but experts tell VICE News the government has done little to implement those strategies.

Last October, scientists wrote a letter to the BC government saying the 2017 fire season had revealed how vulnerable the province is to wildfires. “Without immediate action, large and intense wildfires will undoubtedly burn, escalating economic, social and ecological costs,” they wrote.


The experts sent the government a list of recommendations for how it could better control wildfires, including better forest management, reducing the amount of fuel (such as small trees left behind by logging), increased research funding, and cooperation with First Nations. According to fire ecologist Bob Gray, who co-wrote the letter, government representatives met with him and the other experts after they received it, but have not followed up since.

Scientists predict hotter and drier summers over the next five years in BC, Gray says, meaning even more destructive fires if nothing is done.

“I really hope we’re not too late,” Gray says. “We have a narrow window here to turn things around, and colleagues of mine suggest it’s 20 years. If we don’t bust a big move in the next 20 years, we’re just not going to have a lot of forest left in BC.”

He added: “Year two of this, and no big announcements from the province about changes in legislation and policy. It’s actually quite depressing and frustrating.”

What is increasing BC’s fire risk?

Gray says there are a number of factors causing this year’s intense forest fires. Climate change has created a longer fire season, which allows fuel to dry out, making ignition more likely.

A “lazy jetstream” is also contributing. It’s not as strong as it used to be, and it parks high pressure systems over the province for weeks at a time. When it finally collapses, dry cold fronts come through with strong winds that can change direction quickly, helping fires grow and spread.


But the bottom line is, fire needs fuel, and right now in BC, there’s a lot of it.

“We’ve had a very large mountain pine beetle epidemic, and now we’ve got a douglas fir epidemic, and a spruce beetle epidemic,” Gray says. “We didn’t use a lot of the wood when we harvested to salvage for the dead pine. And so we have a landscape that’s pretty homogenous when it comes to fuel from one end to the other. So fires tend to get big because there’s so much continuous fuel.”

Poor forestry management is contributing to more destructive fires, he says.

"This ecosystem is dependent on fire as much as the rainforest needs the rain in order to survive."

Before settlers arrived, Indigenous communities across North America used controlled burns and other fire management techniques, viewing fire as a positive force that restored nutrients to the soil and maintained healthy ecosystems.

European attitudes have changed all that; we view forests as a source of revenue. As a result, we have poor management practices that increase risk of out-of-control wildfires. We log high value wood and leave low value wood behind, which acts as tinder, creating the perfect conditions for enormous, destructive fires.

The province’s current forestry management practices were adapted from agricultural forestry models in Bavaria, Germany in the 1920s, Gray explains. “In BC it’s a pretty simplistic model. It’s to get the highest volume out at the lowest cost.”


Logging companies focus on taking out large diameter trees, especially douglas fir and spruce. These can be turned into 2x4s and plywood.

Left behind is anything that isn’t cost-effective. The further you are from roads and the mill, the more likely you will leave behind smaller diameter trees used for pulp, which is lower value and won’t cover the cost to get it to the mill.

“So we tend to take out the wood with the highest value and leave the low value wood there, usually on the ground in the form of slash,” says Gray.

Slash is unused material like branches, logs and treetops. BC’s back country is littered with it. When it dries out, it becomes perfect fuel for wildfires.

“The better view is to see it from the air. When you fly over, all you see are these almost square checkerboard of cut blocks with roads linking them together.” Those blocks are not arranged to impede fire flow, he says. “We’re basically just exacerbating the problem.”

“It’s a very profit-oriented model,” Gray says. “We have to start looking at a different model.”

What are the solutions?

“There is a way for forest management to be compatible with resilience, and that means leaving the large wood out there, taking the smaller wood if we’re doing thinning projects, and following up with prescribed burning,” Gray says. “And then anchoring those treatment areas topographically where they’re going to function as a bit of a speed bump for fire spread. That’s actually being applied in a lot of places, but still we’re relying too much on the agricultural forestry model, a capitalist-driven forestry model.”


"In BC it’s a pretty simplistic model. It’s to get the highest volume out at the lowest cost."

If you don’t apply prescribed fires often enough, the vegetation accumulates, and you get highly destructive fires, he says.

He believes legislation would help. Ideally it would state fire’s relationship to the ecosystem, enable the province to apply controlled burns more aggressively while controlling for liability, set out necessary qualifications for workers implementing the burns, and allocate funding for the plan.

“That would enable us to more aggressively use prescribed fire. Right now we’re applying prescribed fire, but there’s nothing in law that says we can do it.”

This past spring, Gray participated in a prescribed burn of a small area in southeastern BC near Cranbrook, working with local fire departments, the province and First Nations. Gray says the province should encourage more projects like that one.

Marty Williams, a 62-year-old firefighter with seven years of experience and member of ʔaq̓am of the Ktunaxa Nation participated in the controlled burn. He called it “quite successful.”

Historically, he says his people used controlled burns to eliminate debris on the ground, preventing bigger fires, and they also re-introduce nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil, which rehabilitates the ecosystem, allowing new plants and berries to grow, sustaining birds, bears, elk and deer.


“The whole ecosystem is a fire-driven ecosystem,” Williams says. “This ecosystem is dependent on fire as much as the rainforest needs the rain in order to survive.”

"Fire isn’t a bad thing, fire is a good thing. It brings new life."

Historically in southeastern BC, the trees were larger and didn’t grow as close together as they are today. Spacing between the trees allowed the shrubs and grass to flourish, which benefit other species too, Williams said.

Williams says his community also has a program where residents run around clearing large woody debris away from structures and cutting lower limbs off the trees (which prevents flames from “laddering” up the tree). They also burn the grass in a controlled way to create a buffer. All of this eliminates fire hazards near homes.

He adds that he thinks more people, especially women, should be trained to quickly respond to lightning strikes, preventing them from becoming huge blazes.

In 2017, the province spent $562.7 million on fire suppression. This year BC has already spent $274 million on suppression with no end of the fires in sight.

In his letter, Gray pointed out that from 2006 to 2015, BC spent $1.82 billion on direct fire suppression. Over the same period, only $183 million was allocated toward proactive, preventative wildfire management.

Soon after the controlled burn, Williams walked through the area and noticed more birds, bees, and new growth.

“Fire isn’t a bad thing, fire is a good thing, it brings new life,” Williams said. “We seem to look at fire as something we need to fight and suppress all the time, and I’m concerned that the provincial government spends millions and millions of dollars on fighting fires that are actually beneficial to the ecosystems.”

Cover image: Thick smoke from wildfires burning in the region fills the air and blocks out the sun as a horse stands in a field on a ranch just before 6 p.m, in Vanderhoof, B.C., on Wednesday August 22, 2018. Photo by Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press