Bigger, Badder Beetle Blazes

Expect larger fires that start faster and are more difficult to control as a result of the mountain pine beetle epidemic in B.C.’s Interior, delegates at the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association convention were told Thursday.

Forest fire science specialist Bruce Blackwell, a consultant who participated in the Firestorm 2003 provincial review team in the wake of the Kelowna fire, pointed to the 2003 Chilko Lake Fire which occurred in a 20-year-old pine beetle-killed area west of Williams Lake.

He noted that during that beetle outbreak only about 30 per cent of the pine was killed, and yet the Chilko Fire is described as one of the most extreme fire events they’ve seen in B.C. “The fire behaviour went off the scale on most of the fire-behaviour charts,” said Blackwell. “So if that’s what is happening in this kind of stand, what’s going to happen in the red-attacked stands that we see coming forward?”

The kill-off of pine in many of the stands in the beetle epidemic is greater than 30 per cent. Blackwell also pointed to a forests ministry safety alert issued a few years ago to its staff on fire behaviour in beetle-killed lodgepole pine forests.

The alert noted that candling and crowning could occur more frequently in calm wind and radiant heat may ignite red foliage at longer distances. It also warned that fire fire brands may be more abundant and lead to more numerous spot fires, and that significant fire growth could be experienced in areas of mixed-harvested and harvested stands.

Harvested stands — where replanted trees are regrowing — were often relied on to stop fires, noted Blackwell. “But the spotting distances in dead pine stands are so far, they’re now skipping over the clearcuts and there’s no ability to stop the fire,” he said.

Blackwell noted that the worst fuel types — saplings regrowing and dead pine leaning or on the ground — will not likely be felt for 15 to 20 years. That’s why it’s important to start planning fuel breaks, which would help break up the landscape so there’s a chance of stopping these fires in beetle-killed areas, he said.

Blackwell also said more needs to be done in helping reduce fire risks in communities, although he said Prince George is one of the communities in the lead.

Other wildfire-threat issues also need to be addressed, including for infrastructure like watersheds, telecommunication towers, sawmills and research stations, said Blackwell. So far, there’s no plan to address the danger to these facilities, he said.

Officials with the Prince George Fire Centre have downplayed the impact of the beetle epidemic in increasing the fire danger in forests in this region, saying the threat of fire is more dependent on wind and weather conditions. Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association president Crawford Young believes the threat is real, saying that workers in the silviculture industry more than almost anyone get a close-up look at the conditions in the forest.

Young, a partner in Prince George-based Spectrum Resource Group Inc., said he sees a role for silviculture companies to become involved in helping mitigate the fire danger in the forest. The silviculture sector is also involved in thinning and spacing timber stands, and some are involved in firefighting.