Government, residents ignore BC forest fire peril

There is more than a whiff of fatalism among foresters familiar with the wildfire threat in B.C. and the rest of Canada. It may take a catastrophe to propel us into action.

Government, residents ignore forest fire peril in B.C.

It is probably naive to think that British Columbia residents and politicians will learn any relevant lessons from the forest fires now raging through parts of Canada and the western United States. The threat of forest fires over-running and consuming the fringe of urban areas, where the city blends into the woods, is growing in many parts of the world.

As the B.C. auditor general warned in a largely ignored report last year, “British Columbia has the highest risk of interface fires in Canada because of its climate and topography.”

The reasons for this growing danger are straightforward. For about a century, we have been successfully fighting forest fires in an over-zealous effort to “protect” forests and avoid “waste.” We have created unnatural forests, many of them diseased or infected with insects and heavily loaded with inflammable fuels which we have not let burn in small, harmless fires.

For the past two or three decades it has been fashionable for people to live in or near these forests. Typically, they build houses with shake or shingle roofs, stack firewood near their residences, often alongside a couple of propane tanks.

During this period, misguided environmental advocates have instilled a wide resistance to any kind of harvesting in the interface forests. Many of these areas have been given protected status under the mistaken notion that forests can be preserved forever.

On top of this, is laid a complex set of provincial forest policies which have precluded the evolution of forest management practices that would maintain healthy, productive forests in harmony with the fire regimes inherent in the province’s various forest ecosystems.

And, finally, there is a climatic warming trend that increases the probability of fire in these forests.

No one has any idea how to quantify this threat. The area of interface forest is unknown, because there is no commonly accepted definition of what constitutes an interface forest. But the large majority of communities in B.C. blend seamlessly into forest to some degree.

The area around Nelson, in the central Kootenay region, is a typical example. Over the past few decades the western fringe of the city has spread along the southern shore of the West Arm of Kootenay Lake to Balfour, a distance of about 32 kilometres. Around 5,000 people now live in the area, most of them within in the forest that covers the slope from the lake to the mountain tops. To someone with no knowledge of forest ecology, it is a beautiful, picturesque community.

The forests here — largely Douglas fir, with lots of spruce and pine –last burned a century ago and have regrown spectacularly. The fires that once burned through them every 15 or 20 years have mostly been extinguished before they could spread. But these are not healthy “natural” forests. Disease and insects are rampant. The buildup of fuels in these forests is enormous, constituting a virtual bomb waiting for the right conditions to ignite in the back yards of 5,000 residents.

Nelson is a centre of environmental activism. Most of the people who live in these forests have strenuously resisted any form of timber harvesting, including attempts to mitigate the growing fire hazard.

Like most B.C. foresters in both industry and government, many professionals in the Nelson region have adopted the fatalistic attitude that nothing can be done to improve conditions until a catastrophic fire someplace in the province delivers a wakeup call.

Locally, it is not much of an issue. The wake-up calls, in fact, have already come, but little attention has been paid to them. Four major fires — near Penticton in 1994, and at Salmon Arm, Tulameen and Kamloops in 1998 — have threatened thousands of people and caused tens of millions of dollars in firefighting costs and property damage.

Something can be done, but it’s not. Instead, we await the infernos now visiting Colorado and Arizona. As the AG’s report notes: “The fire experts see the conditions in British Columbia today being similar to those that existed in these jurisdictions more than a decade ago. They also believe that there is a window of opportunity to address the problem before more destructive interface fires occur.”

As the AG himself notes in his introduction to the report, if action is not taken, “it is only a matter of time before these fires will exceed firefighters’ ability to contain them and that this might lead to significant loss of life and property.”

So far, in the 13 months since the report was delivered to the legislature, the Liberal government has not responded, nor given any indication it is aware of –let alone addressing — the growing danger.

Ken Drushka is the author of several books on forestry and has worked as a logger, silviculture contractor and sawmill operator for 16 years. He writes in BIV weekly. He can be reached at drushka@infoserve.net.