Not all fires are worth fighting

Not all fires are worth fighting

15 October 2014

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Canada — As British Columbia’s resource managers reach a middle ground in allowing wildfires to naturally shape the province’s forests, it is becoming an uneasy truce for communities already dealing with the dislocations of a shrinking timber supply due to mountain pine beetle infestations.

“We’ve realized not all fires are bad,” said Lyle Gawalko, head of fire management for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Resource Operations.

“As a matter of fact, fire has some very good ecological effects, (but only) in the correct area at the correct time,” he added. “I want to preface that because in the wrong areas (fire) is damaging, and community values are (put) at risk.”

Gawalko said there is an increasing recognition that trying to put out every forest fire has contributed to problems such as the beetle infestation and the accumulation of dead undergrowth in forests, which fuels forest-fire intensity.

So the forest ministry’s wildfire management branch has revised its policy of attacking every forest fire, Gawalko said. Instead, if fires don’t endanger lives, communities, power lines or bridges, and are not going to eat into timber that sawmills are counting on, they will “let them burn naturally.”

However, wildfires have scorched more than 16,000 square kilometres of forests since 2003 — roughly half the size of Vancouver Island. Some 3,600 square kilometres burned in the hot 2014 season alone — the third largest area in a single year since 1950, when the province started keeping records.

On top of the pine beetle and the strain that climate change is putting on forests, the prospect of more and bigger forest fires adds to concerns in B.C.’s Interior.

“Of course (fire) is nature’s way of regenerating our boreal forests too,” said Bill Miller, a director of the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako in central B.C. “But we’ve almost been under attack here.”

The region that Miller represents is counting its losses from a blaze that firefighters did battle hard: the 3,450-hectare so-called China Nose fire, sparked by lightning in the forests east of Houston in early August.

“It’s tough ground, but there was some pretty nice timber in there,” Miller added, some of which would have gone into the region’s immediate timber supply and some that might have been included in a community forest.

Of bigger concern was the Chelaslie River fire that burned 133,000 hectares in remote forests south of Burns Lake, including some of Entiako Provincial Park.

“Some of it was in the park, and some in marginal timber stands,” Miller added, “but it was a huge fire. That one’s probably going to have a major impact.”

Gawalko said the ministry hasn’t completed its inventory of timber losses from this year’s fires, but noted that besides the park land, other areas hit by fires were in steep terrain or other landscapes that wouldn’t have been economic to harvest.

The ministry’s assessment of forest fires includes evaluation of timber values, he said. And if trees at risk in a fire have been included in inventories needed for short-term harvest, “we’ll do everything we can to protect that timber.”

“Some timber supplies are very much constrained because of the mountain pine beetle,” Gawalko said. “And when fire occurs in those areas, then it’s very problematic, because they’re basically losing potential harvest opportunities.”

However, Miller said forestry-dependent communities don’t always agree with the ministry’s ranking of timber values in decisions about its responses to fires. He noted that in 2010, fires in the region burned through more young tree plantations than many thought was necessary.

Archie MacDonald, general manager of forestry for the Council of Forest Industries, added that such fires have a longer-term impact on timber supply.

“In areas like Prince George, or parts of the Northwest fire centres where there have already been significant losses to the mountain pine beetle, any additional losses (to fire) are significant,” MacDonald said. “That will definitely have an impact on what the cut will be in those areas.”

There are also consequences in not changing forest-fire-management practices, according to Lori Daniels, an assistant professor in forest and conservation science in the University of B.C.’s faculty of forestry.

“By putting out fires, we reduced the diversity in our forests (making them) similar in age, made them similarly susceptible to the mountain pine beetle,” Daniels said.

Forest fires, on the other hand, clean out the dead trees and open up the landscape for more broad-leaf trees such as aspen, Daniels added, which contributes to the diversity that makes forests more resilient.

Daniels said resilience will become more important as climate trends point to more years similar to this year with a summer drought that started sooner and lasted longer than normal.

“There are going to be trade-offs,” Daniels said. “But we’re hoping with our new framework and new way of thinking, we can avoid a scenario like a future mountain pine beetle (infestation) for our grandchildren.”

The B.C. government has spent more than $293 million fighting fires this year, far above the budgeted amount of $63 million. Last year, the province spent $122 million fighting fires.

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