As wildfires rage, is it time to rethink how we manage forests?
Four forest fires burning in northwestern British Columbia merged this week, forming an enormous, 118,000-hectare blaze. In Ontario, officials only recently declared the massive “Parry Sound 33” forest fire under control after a month of burning.
A wildfire burning about five kilometres south of the townsite in Waterton Lakes National Park prompted officials to warn people on Friday that they might have to leave on short notice. South of the border, California has spent the summer battling deadly fires — one which was the state’s largest yet.
The fires have put climate change at the fore of public discussion in Canada, while forest management has taken a backseat.
And yet, explains Verena Griess, a professor in forest management at the University of British Columbia, if we did more to manage our forests, we could help reduce the risk of a fire.
“Forests in B.C. are not really managed,” says Griess, comparing the western province with her past experience as a forester in Europe.
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Although it varies depending on location and company, she says the B.C. system mostly works like this: companies get a licence to go into certain areas of Crown land and chop trees on the condition they regenerate the land.
Once they grow the new trees to a certain liveability — a point at which the trees are deemed “free to grow” — their responsibility ends.
So while the act of clear-cutting doesn’t necessarily increase fire risk, Griess says, “managing [tree] stands more intensively can lower fire risk.” That would mean continuing to monitor the growth and quality of the trees even after it’s been cleared as “free to grow” and no longer part of the company’s obligations.
Griess doesn’t want to call it mismanagement, but she does think we need to rethink the process.
“Many things go together,” she says. “We need a bit of a paradigm shift in general in how our forests are managed.”
Thanks to forest fires and the devastation wrought by the mountain pine beetle, Griess thinks those conversations are actually starting to happen.
It would help if Canada embraced techniques like the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project in Australia, says William Nikolakis. Nikolakis is a lecturer in UBC’s forestry department, as well as executive director of Gathering Voices, an organization that aims to bring Indigenous knowledge to a wider audience.
“Climate change is having an impact and that has exacerbated problems caused by unsustainable logging in the past,” he says, “so the forests aren’t as resilient as they would be if they were undisturbed.”
In Australia, the abatement project works to help protect the forest before fire breaks out. Indigenous fire managers in the fire-prone region go in early in the season to strategically burn areas that are likely to light up.
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As an online overview of the project makes clear:
“The most effective tool to prevent fire is fire itself. Aboriginal people have known this for a long time.”
The project has been credited with cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions from forest fires by about 122,000 tonnes per year. It’s also a source of income for many remote, Indigenous communities.
“It doesn’t reduce fire from happening but it reduces the intensity, how hot the fire burns, and the amount of area burned,” Nikolakis says. “Canada has been really slow. British Columbia has really been slow to adopt these programs.”
He’s hopeful it won’t take reaching a crisis point for these projects to become more commonplace. But crisis is already how David Martell has described the fires raging this summer.
Martell, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s faculty of forestry specializes in applying analytics to forest fire management problems. He’s got a list of forest management practices he’d like to see implemented that could help.
“This problem isn’t going to go away anytime soon,” he says. “First thing we need to do is reduce the flammability of our landscapes.”
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Part of that is people, Martell says. Communities are starting to take a closer look at making their houses fire smart, thinning groups of trees that could pose a risk should fire come close, and even, in some cases, replacing trees with other less flammable species.
The other part is the forestry companies.
“When you’re talking about timber harvest planning,” Martell says, “a company’s trying to figure out, ‘What’s the cheapest way I can get the most amount of wood to my mill while abiding by environmental guidelines?’”
The companies are not necessarily thinking, “How can I get my wood but also reduce the flammability of the landscape?”
But if companies cleared roads to get to the trees they’re harvesting based not just on the most direct path but also how a fire might spread, Martell says, roads could act as “fuel breaks.”
While longer-term licensing could provide the stability companies need to be more strategic in road placement, Griess says, there’s no one cause requiring a solution. There’s climate change, the mountain pine beetle, decreasing space between human development and wildlands, and forest management practices.
“All of these things play a role,” she says. “In the end, I don’t think it really matters what is the worst or strongest cause of forest fires. The question is, ‘What do we need to change?'”
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