Backgrounder: Don’t blame ‘climate change’ for intensity of B.C. forest fires

While climate change makes fires more likely, it’s poor forestry management that makes them more destructive

By Tristan Hopper, July 24, 2021, National Post

With more than 300 active fires and thousands under evacuation orders, B.C. is currently on the fast track to the most destructive wildfire season in its history.

Although the fires have become an emblem around the world of the destructive effects of climate change, many of the province’s forestry experts are pointing out that while climate change makes fires more likely, it’s poor forestry management that is helping to make them more destructive.

“Even if we were able to turn back the dial on climate change we would still have wildfires that are severe and would burn people’s houses down,” said Jesse Zeman, director of fish and wildlife restoration with the B.C. Wildlife Federation. “Climate change just makes everything worse.”

Starting in 2017, B.C. started experiencing fire seasons that were way off the charts of anything in the province’s recorded history. In 2017, the province saw 1.2 million hectares burned by wildfires — a full 40 per cent higher than the previous record-holder of 855,968 hectares burned in 1958.

The next year, that record was smashed again when wildfires surged through 1.35 million hectares — an area 40 per cent larger than Cape Breton Island.

After two quiet years (the 14,000 hectares burned in 2020 was the lowest in 10 years), the rapid onset of the 2021 season has placed it in the running to shatter records once again.

Climate change made it much more likely that B.C. would be assaulted by the record-breaking heat dome that kicked off the 2021 fire season. Lytton, B.C., most notably, was flattened by fire within hours of posting the highest temperature in Canadian history.

Warming temperatures have made forests drier and yielded the mild winters that allowed the Mountain Pine Beetle to turn whole forests into highly flammable stands of dead trees. Climate change has also helped drive a spike in the severity of thunderstorms, with B.C. this summer being hit by 10 times as many lightning strikes as usual.

‘Fuel load,’ not climate, is accelerating wildfires

But all these factors are converging on B.C. forests piled high with what wildfire experts call “fuel load” — the accumulated debris, deadwood and untreated clearcut areas that can dramatically accelerate the speed and intensity of a wildfire.

“We’re learning that by protecting our forests we’re really just building a bigger bomb,” said Zeman.

In the aftermath of the disastrous 2017 fire season, the University of British Columbia’s Department of Forest & Conservation Sciences sent an open letter to B.C. Premier John Horgan highlighting the need for more prescribed burns to curb fuel load in the province’s forests.

“In the area of fuels and forest practices, which is the largest component necessary to reduce wildfire severity and threats to communities, there has been little action,” it read.

Prescribed burns part of Indigenous ecology

Long before the arrival of Europeans to what is now British Columbia, many Indigenous groups practiced prescribed burns. It encouraged the growth of edible plants such as camas while also yielding forests that were easier to navigate.

The B.C. capital of Victoria is located on its current site in large part because its Hudson’s Bay Company founders thought that the area’s green open fields resembled a “perfect Eden.” What they don’t appear to have realized is that the pastoral landscape of Southern Vancouver Island had been shaped by millennia of Lekwungen controlled burning.

One of Vancouver Island’s first settlers, Walter Grant, was soon complaining that “the savages have an abominable habit of burning the woods.” Grant then pushed the colonial government to ban controlled burns as a condition of treaty negotiations. Indigenous fire stewardship in B.C., just like everywhere else in Canada, would effectively be banned by the end of the 19th century.

Last month, a paper out of UBC selected a stand of old-growth forest outside Williams Lake, B.C., and used tree-ring data to carefully track what fires in the area used to look like before the onset of the 20th century. What researchers found was that, prior to the arrival of Europeans, fires burned through the area roughly every 10 to 30 years, and were usually of middling severity. Nowadays, modern fire suppression ensures that the same kind of forest will typically go 70 to 180 years without a burn, guaranteeing a much more severe fire when it does strike.

“In absence of low- to moderate-severity fires, contemporary forests are dense with closed canopies that are vulnerable to high-severity fire,” wrote researchers.

With forests regularly being put to the torch by Indigenous peoples, they were rarely able to accumulate the fuel needed to transform them into the apocalyptic firestorms that now seasonally plague B.C.

Chilliwack-based wildfire ecologist Robert Gray has been one of the more vocal advocates for ramping up the number of prescribed burns in B.C. forests. While B.C.’s Ministry of Forests typically only earmarks 5,000 hectares for controlled burning each year, Gray has said the number needs to be in the tens of thousands.

Gray told the National Post that while fires were started “prodigiously” in the pre-contact era, they were usually no bigger than 50 hectares — about as big as a mid-sized urban park. With forests regularly being put to the torch, they were rarely able to accumulate the fuel needed to transform them into the apocalyptic firestorms that now seasonally plague B.C. — and blacken the skies of eastern cities with wildfire smoke.

“Fire inoculated the landscape against large fires,” Gray told the National Post.

Just last week, the case for prescribed burns was bolstered when wildfires surged into Sycan Marsh Preserve in Oregon, where ecologists have spent years using low-level fires to bolster stands of ponderosa.

As Pete Caligiuri, one of the researchers at the preserve, told NPR “generally speaking, what firefighters were reporting on the ground is that when the fire came into those areas that had been thinned … it had significantly less impact.”

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