The 2017 fire season smashed records in British Columbia, triggering a forest policy discussion that has some intriguing divergence from the parallel debate in the United States.
“If they accept this, we’re going to see more smoke in the air,” Robert Gray said of a megafire response plan sent to B.C. Premier John Horgan on Sept. 26. “We got together and said, ‘There’s our window.’ We can really change the way things are going — make transformational change — or do the same things and face the consequences.”
“We” includes nine mayors, 20 professors, and five research center managers from Victoria to Cranbrook to the First Peoples’ Ktunaxa Nation. Gray was one of the co-authors, and has a career as a fire ecologist in Chilliwack, B.C.
The plan includes 46 recommendations spanning tactical firefighting, fuels reduction, protecting homes in the wildland-urban interface, better forest management for fire resilience and more research on how climate change will transform wildfire management. While it assumes extensive timber industry participation, it also features a big boost in government spending.
The call comes after British Columbia experienced its largest forest fire ever recorded when the Plateau complex burned 467,000 hectares (1.2 million acres). By the start of October, more than 100 wildfires were still burning in the province. That made 2017 the province’s worst year on record with 1.2 million hectares burned, surpassing 1958’s 855,000 hectares. At 2.9 million acres, that’s just short of the landscape of Glacier and Yellowstone national parks combined.
Gray said catastrophes like 2016’s fire evacuation of 80,000 people from Fort McMurray, Alberta helped clarify the need to get ahead of wildfire’s evolving impact on everyday life.
“We are willing to deficit-spend for seismic upgrades and flood mitigation, but not for fires,” Gray said. “In Cranbrook, a simple evacuation would cost millions of dollars a day. Balance that against the tax money needed to subsidize removal of low-value wood. It’s no comparison. The fire is always more expensive.”
While legislative proposals in the U.S. Congress have focused on ways to let private lumber companies cut more millable trees to improve forest health, the British Columbia coalition’s plan focuses on government partnering with industry to change the composition of the provincial forests. That includes backing away from a tradition of “plantation forestry,” especially within 5 miles of homes and communities. It also means helping some regions shift to more dry-land ecosystems as the province experiences increasingly arid climate conditions.
“We need to take what we understand about climate change, and make sure we have stands that have a chance to withstand fire,” Gray said. “We’ve allowed species like lodgepole pine to become dominant, because it so easily regenerates. We need to shift to species like Douglas fir, quaking aspen, and in the southern interior, ponderosa pine and western larch. That means lower timber volumes and longer rotations.”
The plan also proposes increased use of small trees, slash and other hazardous-but-unmarketable forest material for pulp, pellets or hog fuel for energy production. What couldn’t be subsidized out of the forest would be burned in place through prescribed fires in the spring and fall.
“The accountants said we have to look at solutions relative to the potential consequences down the road,” Gray said. “If we have to spend $10 upfront to save $1,000 on the back end, we need to do that.”