British Columbia has experienced a significant increase in wildfire activity in the last decade, and if predictions from government fire scientists come true, we can expect to see further increases in burned area and cost in the coming decade.
With each catastrophic fire season since 2003 there has been calls to dramatically increase the use of prescribed fire in B.C. as a means of limiting the damage. Properly executed prescribed fires can, for a period of time, provide numerous ecological, social and economic benefits.
Prescribed fire was a popular tool used by the province and forest industry to reduce harvesting slash (hazard abatement), improve tree growing opportunities, and improve wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, by the mid-1980’s, the social license to carry out prescribed burning was lost due to a number of issues including smoke impacts, ecological concerns, and excessive escapes. We need to re-establish the public trust when it comes to the use and effects of prescribed fire if we are to have much success in limiting future wildfire damage.
First Nations were the first practitioners of prescribed fire in B.C., exhibiting a high level of sophistication in terms of understanding fire effects on specific plants and ecosystems. Without prescribed fire, it is entirely possible many parts of B.C. would not have been inhabitable. With industrial-scale forestry came the recognition that prescribed fire was a useful tool for abating the risks and hazards associated with the accumulation of slash that follows harvesting operations.
It became apparent later that usefulness extended to improving tree growing opportunities as well as improving wildlife habitat, etc. Prior to the 1990s there was a great deal of prescribed burning taking place in B.C. on an annual basis. Unfortunately, a significant backlash, in the form of public opposition to smoke and escapes, dramatically reduced the area burned each year. Another problem was too much prescribed fire being applied in the wrong ecosystems (e.g., west side of Vancouver Island) and not enough in the correct ones (e.g., East Kootenays, Okanagan).
These persistent issues gradually led to a significant backlash against the use of prescribed fire and forced the province and industry to look for alternatives to burning. Several decades of timber harvest with no burning has resulted in significant wildfire hazards in harvested areas across the province. When we combine the hundreds of thousands of hectares of harvest slash with 20 million hectares of dead lodgepole pine, the result is an almost uninterrupted and highly hazardous fuel bed across the province.
The need for a significant increase in prescribed burning was a popular topic during a recent panel on wildfire issues at this years’ Association of B.C. Forest Professionals annual general meeting in February. The discussion offered a good place to start in mapping a strategy for how to regain the public trust and make prescribed fire use, and some of its less than desirable effects, acceptable. Such a strategy needs to start with acknowledging the mistakes of the past and then developing a pragmatic approach to ensure that those mistakes are not repeated going forward. A number of other jurisdictions around the globe (e.g., Australia, southeastern U.S.) have had to go through a similar exercise and most have come out the other end with a public largely on side with burning.
Prescribed fire is the planned ignition of vegetation (fuel) to meet specific ecological objectives over a specific area. Implicit in the definition is the understanding that the ecosystem in which you are applying fire has evolved over centuries with adaptations to it. Also implicit is the concept of a specific area, meaning fire is not intended for areas outside the planned boundaries. By the 1980s too much prescribed fire had been applied in areas that had not evolved with fire, ecological objectives were subservient to economic objectives (reduce silviculture costs and risks), and too many burns were exceeding the planned boundaries.