Janet Moje

Watching the video footage on the fires in California, the houses reduced to a footprint of ash, charred trees, and shells of cars scattered in the remnants of neighbourhoods, seeing people trying to drive through a storm of embers and streets lined with walls of fire - it reminds me of the footage of Fort McMurray not that long ago.

Wildfires seem to be getting worse in recent years, and looking at BC Wildfire statistics over the last decade, this is true. Fires are getting larger and fiercer, “mega-fires” over 40 hectares in size, with 2017 and 2018 being the worst years in history, burning over one million hectares of forests each.

Compiled from Natural Resources Canada statistics
Compiled from Natural Resources Canada statistics

Last year we endured heavy smoke for most of the summer. We saw flames licking the top of the mountain ridge two kilometers from town, another fire in Westridge about the same distance from Cedarside. Had circumstances been different, hotter temperatures with heavier winds, the outcome may also have been different. It could have been us.

But are we completely at the mercy of wildfire circumstances year after year? When will the wildfire be too big or too hot for our fire fighters to get under control?

We live in a fire-prone area. The first step is to recognize this truth. Only then can we collectively plan on how to reduce our risks. But it takes all of us to protect our homes, and to keep us as safe as possible. We all need to do our part, even if it is as small as raking up dry pinecones and needles, keeping flammable debris away from our houses.

In this series, the Valley Sentinel will look at the different steps we can take to make our situation better. We will start with forest management, past and present, and how making some changes could reduce our risks.

Paul Francis Hessburg, a University of Washington affiliate professor and ecologist, has researched forest management in the Pacific Northwest for most of his life. He works for the USDA Forest Service in Wenatchee, Washington. In a posted TED Talk in November of last year, he expounds why forest management needs to change. You can view this 15 minute video here.

Historically, wildfires have always been a part of the landscape. Our forests used to consist of stands of trees interspersed with grasslands - not the dense forests we have today. Fires that occurred were small in size. Large, thick-bark trees would survive these fires while the undergrowth of dead branches and debris would be burned up, reducing fire risk for future years. Fires spread through the grasslands from stand to stand, regenerating these pastures for wildlife.

Topography plays an important role in the behavior of fires. The dry, south-facing forests would burn often, and therefore trees were sparse with lots of open areas. Denser forests grew on higher slopes, being colder with higher snow load, and northern slopes, more shaded and moist. Fires would be more severe there, but less frequent. Valleys, sunlight, drainage, winds and weather all influence fire risks.

 

The two photos show a comparison of the same forest area. When controlled burning was carried out by indigenous peoples, the forests were more diverse and not as high-risk for out of control fires. Compare with our typical dense forests today.
The two photos show a comparison of the same forest area. When controlled burning was carried out by indigenous peoples, the forests were more diverse and not as high-risk for out of control fires. Compare with our typical dense forests today.
Paul Hessburg PHOTO From: TED Talks, “Why wildfires have gotten worse and what we can do about it”

What you might not know

For 10,000 years, indigenous people would intentionally burn the forest to grow more food and increase the grazing land for deer and elk. They would burn in spring and fall to avoid the out of control summer fires.

In the last 150 years, a combination of practices have changed our forests from healthy to an “epidemic of trees” as Hessburg puts it.

 

These new, dense forests where branches touch each other create the avenues for fires to ignite laterally. It also increases the spread of disease and insects, such as ticks and beetles, that adds to the debris on the ground - dead trees, branches, dry needles and cones – a tinderbox just waiting for a spark.

Low branches create fire ladders, and thin-bark trees ignite easily so fire quickly moves from the forest floor to the upper canopy. Add into this the urban sprawl into dense forests providing further fuel for fires.

This doesn’t have to continue, especially at the rate it has been increasing. We have the knowledge and tools to change this, to manage our forests differently, but unfortunately, public support for this is low. It would require tree thinning, especially around urban areas, and prescribed burning to clean up the dead debris and reduce fire risk for future years. And it would require allowing wildfires to burn naturally.

This can be done in a controlled fashion, and for the most part on a planned schedule.  Instead of fighting wildfires, with risk to homes and lives, our fire fighters can manage where and when most fires take place, and reduce the occurrence of out-of-control fires.

In our next article we will examine what each one of us can do to help. Each of us can reduce our fire hazard risks, and the more people that get involved, the greater the reduction of risk for all of us.