After two record-breaking wildfire years in B.C., forestry experts are calling on the government to endorse more controlled burning, also known as prescribed fires, in the province’s forests to help protect communities and reduce firefighting costs.
“We as a province cannot continue to spend upwards of half a billion dollars a year in suppression and response costs,” BC Wildfire Service executive director Ian Meier said. “We need to find a different way.”
Meier was one of four forest fire professionals who participated in UBC Okanagan’s wildfire forum in Kelowna on Monday night.
All of the panelists believe fighting fire with fire is the most strategic tool the province has to reduce the wildfire risk.
“I do think this government will find a different way and will invest more in prevention mitigation,” Meier said.
Lowering the wildfire risk with controlled burns requires patience, according to University of California Berkeley fire science Prof. Scott Stephens.
Forests build wildfire resiliency after three controlled burns completed over 20 years, he said.
“Not surprisingly, in the first fire, we killed a lot of trees,” Stephens said.
Those trees fall and are then burned up in the next controlled burn, he said. After the third fire, excess materials are further consumed but then the forest only requires maintenance of surface fuels.
“Surface fuels are simply the dead and downed wooden material on the ground,” Stephens said. “It’s the logs, it can be the litter, the branches, the shrubs.”
Surface fuels represent 60 to 70 per cent of the hazard for dangerous fires that grow quickly, he said.
“That’s why prescribed fires work so well because we’re consuming surface fuel,” Stephens said.
Fire was used more often in the past to manage life on First Nations territories, according to panel participant Jeff Eustache, forestry fire manager with the First Nations’ Emergency Services Society of B.C.
“I think the recognition of the different values of why did they burn would be quite helpful,” Eustache said. “It was for many purposes. Whether it was for wildlife, enhancing vegetation, for plants or medicinal uses. Access was a big thing as well.”
Eustache believes indigenous communities have knowledge of managing B.C. forests that has not been fully respected.
Forests are now allowed to mature unchecked, which leads to hazardous conditions, he said.
“Nowadays it’s quite difficult to go through a forest when it’s fairly stagnant and overgrown, a lot of decay. The stand composition has changed quite significantly,” he said.
“We have to be smart about this,” forestry consultant Bruce Blackwell said. “We probably have to go slower than we want to.”
Not everyone is comfortable with the sight of fire, even ones that are controlled by crews, he said.
“We have to come to some middle ground where people are willing to take a certain higher level of risk than we are today,” Blackwell said. “That doesn’t mean burning some of these fuels without pre-treating them because there’s too much fuel in a lot of cases.”
Over time, provincial crews will build expertise on the method, he said, and gain the confidence of communities that they are looking to protect.
In the Province of B.C.’s wildfire management strategy released in 2010, controlled burning was touted as the best tool in the fight against wildfires.
The NDP government has committed $50 million over three years to B.C. communities towards wildfire mitigation work. Applications close on Dec. 7, 2018.