Provincial fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek wasn’t encouraging when he said, a couple of days ago: “There’s no relief in sight in the weather forecast. We’re expecting temperatures in the mid-30s, and absolutely no rain in the near future. That’s definitely cause for concern.”
But B.C.’s forest fire crisis, which led on July 3 to a province-wide ban on all outdoor fires, began, in reality, not with this year’s unseasonably warm, dry spring, but over a century ago — specifically in the year 1912.
That’s the year that the BC Wildfire Management Branch began aggressively suppressing naturally-occurring fires in the woods. It’s been doing this ever since, allowing dangerous levels of easily combustible fuel to build up on the ground.
Thus the stage has been set for today’s calamitous situation, made far worse by global warming and by an 11-fold increase in B.C.’s population since fire suppression began.
As of this weekend, 90 per cent of the $55 million allocation set aside this year by Christy Clark for fighting forest fires in B.C. has been spent.
But this projection was absurdly low.
B.C. wildfires vary enormously in number and size each year, and in the dollars spent on suppression as well. This last can vary from a high of nearly $400 million in 2009 to a low of $21 million in 1999. The average cost is just under $150 million — nearly three times what the government allowed for this year.
So here’s the problem: take a century of aggressive forest fire suppression, and add in accelerating climate change fueled by burning fracked gas (remember, that’s the basis of Christy Clark’s vision of the B.C. economy), oil (Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s beloved oil sands are just on the other side of the Rockies), and carbon emitted from B.C.’s dead, dying and burning forests which have changed from a carbon sink to a carbon source.
Toss in a large dollop of population growth, and it’s clear that Canada’s western-most province is faced with a human-created “perfect storm.”
Since relentless forest fire suppression began over a century ago, burnable fuel has been accumulating throughout the 84 million hectares of B.C. woods, causing fires to now burn with a greater intensity and do far more damage to forest integrity than before Europeans came to this part of the world and began protecting timber as a market commodity.
Canada averages about 9,000 forest fires a year, which burn on average 2.5 million hectares of trees. Canada’s various governments spend between $300 million and $500 million a year on fire suppression costs. These costs have been characteristically focused on addressing purely human concerns: “Fires near communities, industrial infrastructure, and forests with high commercial and recreation value are given high priority for suppression efforts.”
Scientists and others have known for years that this was a failing strategy, and have counselled against relying on it.
A decade ago, the Ontario Environment Commissioner delivered a scathing review of the Ontario government’s Forest Fire Management Strategy, prepared in the year 2000, and implemented four years later. The Commissioner noted that “there are serious inconsistencies… based on giving priority to short-term wood supply over the ecological role of fire in some areas.”
The Commissioner went on to summarize, a decade ago, and in precise language, the problem we now face in B.C.: “Catastrophic fires may occur, for example, when fires have been suppressed, because forest fuels have been allowed to accumulate that otherwise may have been consumed naturally by smaller fires. Catastrophic fires that are the result of suppression and excessive fuel loads do not mimic normally occurring forest fires, but burn with a much greater intensity and at a much larger scale.”
Pennsylvania State University geography professor Alan Taylor has been researching this subject for years. Currently studying the Yosemite Park “Rim Fire”, he notes that “100 years of fire exclusion creates an understory with abundant surface fuel and small trees that allow fires to move into the tree canopies.” When fires reach up into the canopy, they can kill the forest.
B.C. is said by some to be a leader in the use of prescribed burns and advanced planning to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires, but despite much rhetoric, the political will behind these approaches has been insipid.
Although recognizing that fire “is beneficial and necessary to maintain a healthy forest and the diversity of plant and animal life”, the B.C. government also admits that the use of prescribed fire “has diminished over the last couple of decades”, primarily because “a lack of ‘ownership’ of prescribed fire in the province has led to a fragmented approach amongst the different agencies [involved].” This is attributed cryptically to “changing agency demographics” (that’s code for massive layoffs of public servants), resulting in “a serious reduction in experienced practitioners and limited opportunities to gain experience.”
In other words, nobody in government or the forest industry has been willing to admit that they have self-consciously turned B.C.’s forests into a potentially explosive tinderbox.
Only First Nations have been seriously interested in prescribed burns, because there is still a strong cultural memory of using them to restore the land base to higher productivity.
By way of contrast, the province’s Fuel Management Prescription Program, part of the Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative, has only focused on setting up fuel-free buffer zones around established communities, rather than reaching out into the forest and reducing dangerous fuel accumulation on a larger more meaningful scale.
Now, climate change and increasing population levels have made the fire problem far worse.
With climate change, summers in the southern half of the B.C. Interior are longer and hotter and drier, and winters are shorter and milder and wetter. A few days ago, Kamloops had the hottest temperature ever recorded, and several other communities also experienced their hottest recorded temperatures.
Throughout Canada, the forest fire situation is probably going to get worse. Natural Resources Canada stated last month: “Climate change during the 21st century is expected to result in more frequent fires in many boreal forests, with severe environmental and economic consequences.”
In 1912, the settler population of B.C. was 407,000.
Today the population is about 4.6 million — a 1,100-per-cent increase.
There has been progressive encroachment of human settlements further and further into wild spaces, with reckless construction into potentially fire-prone areas, and a lack, until recently, of adequate fire protection buffers. Now, fire suppression crews increasingly have to spend an inordinate amount of their time — and public funds — protecting homes and infrastructure.
The Salmon Arm fire alone, in 1998, damaged over 6,000 hectares, resulted in the evacuation of 7,000 people, destroyed 40 buildings, and cost over $10 million to finally extinguish.
The Kelowna Mountain Park fire of 2003, “the most significant interface wildfire event in BC history”, caused the evacuation of 33,000 people (over 4,000 of them twice), and destroyed 238 homes. The heat from the fire was so intense that if vapourized some cement foundations, causing homes to disappear without a trace.
This could well be a challenging summer.
The chances are hight that costs will climb, losses will mount up and people’s lives will be increasingly disrupted by fire.
We can hope that one day Premier Clark will wake up, consult independent forest scientists, and accept that there are more important goals than simply protecting the timber supplies of its corporate partners in the immediate term.
There’s a lot more they could do. If they don’t, British Columbians will be roasting for decades to come.