We Need to Rethink Wildfire Management Strategy

wildfireRelying solely on wildfire suppression will not defend us against catastrophic wildfires in Western Canada. The Americans have found this out. We need to learn from their experience.

Western Canada needs a wildfire management strategy that goes beyond suppression.

Managing fuels and restoring ecosystems would reduce a major threat to our forests and generate a new forestry economy.

(This article appeared in the Canadian Silvicultural Magazine 2003 Summer edition. It was written before the now infamous 2003 wildfire season blew up mid-summer.)

Speaking at the U.S. Western Governor’s Association Forest Health Summit last June USDA Chief Forester Dale Bosworth described possibly one of the most significant shifts in American forest policy since the US Forest Service came into being in 1905. Bosworth recognized the need to thin and brush America’s national forests in order to reign in the wildfires that have spectacularly charred much of the U.S. landscape over the last decade.

“We will continue to fight wildfires,” he said. “But we need to be proactive on ground. The fight against catastrophic wildfire will only be won by controlling the fuels. We have to take the heat out of the forests.”

In 1905 with Gifford Pinchot heading the nascent US Forest Service a series of devastating fire years brought public opinion and government policy around to protecting forests and the landscape from forest fires. Pinchot’s conservation program was built primarily around fire suppression.

Now almost a century later a series of devastating fire years has again brought wildfire policy to a conservation threshold. Only this time fire suppression is no longer seen as the prime tool to conserve the forests. Last year the U.S. spent $US1.6 billion to fight fires that burned 3 million hectares. Ironically much of that destruction was fuelled by decades of successful wildfire suppression.

Recognizing this paradox the Americans have come to the conclusion that they need to reduce the fuel and energy in their forests before they burn. That revelation has come largely from the shock of seeing flame walls 400 feet in height stretching for miles across the landscape. Already at this writing 2003 has seen more than 250 homes burnt in New Mexico. Notwithstanding some perennial contrarians in the environmental movement most reasonable stakeholders are beginning to see advantages to thinning forests, removing the ingrown underbrush and restoring them to a state where fire need not be a devastating event.

Here in Western Canada we should be coming to the same conclusion. For the past few years the U.S./Canada border has seemed to act as a fire break. But it’s an illusion. In 2000 when Idaho, Washington, and Montana burned British Columbia and Alberta did escape relatively unscorched. But the same forest types that went up in smoke south of here extend well north of the border along the cordillera and into the Interior. Furthermore, we have managed our forests like the Americans; suppressing wildfire successfully for decades. Our woods are as prone to increasingly severe wildfire as theirs. We just haven’t had the ignitions.

A recent study of 16 million hectares of the B.C. southern Interior, stretching south from 100 Mile House and across from the lee of the Coast Range to the Great Divide, has analyzed the historic natural fire regimes of this region’s forests to determine how far these ecosystems have departed from their typical wildfire disturbance patterns. Almost half of the study area is in a moderately to severely departed state meaning fires have skipped at least one or two intervals. When fires don’t occur fuel builds up and the results of the study show large areas of the south of the province have a growing fuel hazard on the ground. That hazard will eventually express itself in wildfire behavior so severe, in some cases, it will destroy ecosystems right down to the bacteria in the soil.

But natural habitat, flora and fauna are not the only things at risk. The same study shows 375,000 hectares of fuel-filled forest are threatening homes and communities built in the interface between settlements and the woods. For instance the city of Nelson and its environs along Kootenay Lake, an area that historically burnt in fire return intervals of between seven to 30 years, has not seen significant wildfire since the turn of the century. In that community almost $1-billion worth of interface residences are at risk. To calculate the total real estate values at risk between communities from Whistler to Radium would produce figures of tens of billions in just southern British Colulmbia to say nothing of Alberta and the north.

The US government intends to spend $US12-billion over the next ten years on their national forests reducing the risk of the occurence of uncontrollable, catastrophic wildfires. In British Columbia where the operable forests are roughly equal in area to the total U.S. national forests there is no organized program to manage wildfire through fuel reduction and ecosystem restoration. For example by spring this year the Americans had already prescribed burned 400,000 hectares in six months as part of their forest health program. In British Columia less than 5,000 hectares are prescribed-burned annually.

In Western Canada we seem to have been granted a grace period when it comes to wildfire. So far we have failed to fill that opportunity with convincing action. Instead there is a growing fatalism among foresters that governments will not act until some catastrophe moves them. From a moral and a practical point that is an unacceptable strategy.

Provincial, federal, and municipal governments need to collaborate now and create a wildfire strategy that goes beyond that traditional emphasis on suppression. It would have to be a strategy built on maintaining ecosystem health as the main priority. Land managers would recognize the importance of natural disturbance patterns and plan accordingly. Communities and land owners would have to regulate and build with respect for the place fire holds in their adjacent forest landscape. A new forestry industry would have to be developed to implement the commercial thinning, brushing, and prescribed burning required to restore forests to a sustainable, resiliant threshold.

None of this will go ahead of course without money. But removing the waste from the woods is not all costs. Some operations wil be able to pay for themselves in merchantable wood. In other areas we will have to develop technologies and markets to deal with the bio-mass and the small wood. The Americans have made some progress on this already with entrepreneurs stepping into niche markets created just from residential clean ups. Gale Norton US Secretary of State for the Interior is, among many things, investigating the possibilities of portable co-generation power stations to consume the materials generated from reducing fuels and restoring their beleagured forests.

Like in the U.S. we will have to match the scale of the problem with our imagination. Some abstract thinking will be required. For instance the very volatility that makes wildfire so destructive—the waxes, terpens and fibres—is a huge potential source of energy. If we extract these bio-oils from the accumulated bio-mass we have a new source of energy from our forest. Even more conceptual are the possilbilities of carbon credits and opportunities created from our signing on the Kyoto protocol. It is possible that carbon sequestration could generate revenues that we could wisely use to prevent and mitigate potential huge escapes of carbon through wildfire.

In spite of the absence of an overarching approach there is a groundswell wildfire strategy developing among communities across Western Canada who have recognized the wildfire threat. These independent initiatives are led by a handful of maverick bureaucrats, scientists and innovative community leaders who are supported by an informed public. But they are still very much the minority and although they are resourceful they are not capable of spontaneously generating a program on the scale we need. That must come from the policy makers and politicians from higher levels of government. These leaders need to at least signal that they recognize the problem. If they did they would be surprised at how quickly the resources could be marshalled to develop and implement a wildfire management strategy.