Bruce Blackwell’s CBC Radio Wildfire Threat Interview 22 July 2003

CBC Summer Daybreak interviewed forest ecologist Bruce Blackwell in July. He described his wildfire threat report and mapping project co-authored with Bob Gray. The interview looks prescient given this year’s wildfires.

Verbatim Transcript CBC-FM 91.5 ‘Summer Daybreak’ July 22, 2003 6:50 am Host: Marianne Barschel ”Bruce Blackwell” Independent Forester

BARSCHEL: A new report says many communities in the southern Interior face high risks of catastrophic wildfires. The report was funded by the government under the Forest Investment Innovation Account. It says that Nelson, Salmon Arm, and Kamloops are all examples of communities at risk. Bruce Blackwell is an independent forester and biologist and he is one of the authors of the report. He joins me on the line this morning. Good morning.

BLACKWELL: Good morning.

BARSCHEL: Well, I know that there are different reasons that communities have been found to be at risk, but can you give us sorta some of the general ideas, or the general reasons that communities are at risk when it comes to – for a catastrophic fire?

BLACKWELL: Well, we can talk about our study. We looked at a large area – the southern Interior, from the lea of the Coast Mountains, across the BC Alberta border, and then South from 100 Mile House to the US border. And what we found was that there was a large area in the southern Interior that has a higher fire hazard than it did historically, mostly as a result of fire suppression. We are finding that in many stands and grasslands, because of fire suppression, more trees are growing into individual stands, and trees are encroaching into the grasslands. And what this has done, is this area is concentrated in the lower elevation valley bottoms, where most of our communities and what we call the interface is being developed in. And for instance in the interface alone we found in places where people are building their homes outside of communities like Kamloops, outside of communities like Salmon Arm, and we found that there is about 375,000 hectares of these interface communities throughout the southern Interior that are embedded within these high-hazard forest stands.

BARSCHEL: So you have found the problem and the areas where the problem is acute; what are you suggesting should be done?

BLACKWELL: Well, I think first of all the public needs to be more aware of this issue. There certainly is a large education and communication component to all of this, and I think right from the ground level individual homeowners need to understand better how to protect their homes in these interface communities. For instance, they need to be aware of creating defensible space around individual residences. Don’t have trees hanging over the roof; don’t have trees growing alongside of their houses. They also need to be aware of the kinds of building materials that their homes are made of – if they have got cedar shake roofs, or cedar siding – those kinds of things. There is also a whole community planning level of awareness – how to create access so that fire-fighters can get into an individual building, what can be done to protect a community. Can we put in a specific fuel brake that might give fire-fighters a better chance to actually deal with an individual fire? And then I think you can look at it at the Provincial level. And I think we do have a good set of regulations that are in place. And it is a question of better enforcing those regulations and dealing with hazards as they are identified, and to try and integrate better in this whole community protection planning strategy.

BARSCHEL: So it sounds like a lot of different levels have to buy into this, and work together on this.

BLACKWELL: Well, it’s an extremely complex problem, and it needs – a strategy needs to be interwoven through all levels of government and the public. And I think, as I mentioned before, communication and education are two of the most important components of that. BARSCHEL: When you talked about a fuel break, are you talking about taking out trees?

BLACKWELL: Yes. In certain areas you need to remove this fuel to reduce the overall hazard and create a lower severity fire situation that will enable firefighters, one, to fight the fire more successfully, and also to buy some time for emergency processes.

BARSCHEL: And so how do you do that? How do you convince somebody to go in there and take out these trees? It might just be a fairly thin swathe of trees.

BLACKWELL: Well, I think the most – again, when people see pictures of what we are talking about – it is not the complete removal of all trees. It is thinning of the smallest trees, typically from below the canopy. So we are just reducing the continuity of the canopy from the ground up. You are typically retaining the biggest trees that have the branches and the crown highest up. So really you can make a lot of forest that maybe would not be that attractive more appealing aesthetically. So in a sense people find that these kinds of treatments are not that offensive.

BARSCHEL: The report has just been completed; what happens next?

BLACKWELL: Well, we have just submitted this to a scientific journal, and we are hoping that it will be published. We are hoping that it can be circulated across all levels of government, and we are hopeful that it will influence policy decision-makers to begin to understand and deal with this problem to a higher degree than it is currently being dealt with.

BARSCHEL: Well, thank you for telling us about it this morning.

BLACKWELL: You’re welcome.

BARSCHEL: Bye now.