Over the last decade, fires have burned through some 15,500 square kilometres of B.C.’s forests and charred some 38 million cubic metres worth of trees from within the designated timber-harvesting land base, according to figures from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

In any given year losses to forest fires can swing from negligible to substantial. For example, the lowest year in the last decade was 2008, which saw fires burn 13,000 hectares and damage about 236,000 cubic metres of timber.

The decade’s highest year for damage was 2014, which saw fires scorch 36,300 sq. km. of forests and damage 13 million cubic metres of timber.

The 10-year accumulation, however, is the equivalent of about 65 per cent of the entire 2015 B.C. timber harvest, according to ministry figures, and a significant short-term stress on an industry estimated to be worth $12 billion per year to the B.C. economy. By way of comparison, over the last five years, B.C.’s lumber exports alone averaged 25 million cubic metres per year, worth about $5 billion in sales.

While the numbers sound large, on average fire losses in any given year are only about one tenth of one per cent of the overall timber-harvesting land base, said Ministry of Forests spokesman Greig Bethel in an email. However, they add to concerns in an industry that is already facing constraints to its timber supplies from the mountain pine beetle infestation.

“Loss of harvestable timber supplies through wildfires is, of course, an ongoing concern to industry,” said Susan Yurkovich, CEO of the Council of Forest Industries, the main industry lobby group for forest-products producers in B.C.’s Interior.

“Protecting timber values is the very reason (the wildfire service) was invented,” said Ian Meier, director of the B.C. Wildfire Service. Doing so is becoming a more complicated business, though, as timber management has come around to recognizing fire as more of a natural and necessary part of forest ecology.

The top priority for fighting forest fires is the protection of people’s lives and to protect property and infrastructure. To do that, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations has devoted increasing resources to reducing fire risks in so-called interface zones, the areas where communities encroach on forest land.

In February, Forest Minister Steve Thomson committed $85 million toward efforts such as thinning and clearing brush that could fuel fires, as well as replanting and rehabilitating areas ravaged by the mountain pine beetle.

Protecting timber in the working forest is the Wildfire Service’s next priority, but an increasing number of factors are going into the calculation of deciding when fires are beneficial for restoring forest health. For decades, B.C. maintained a policy of trying to put out most fires because most of the province’s forests were designated for some form of timber management, said Lori Daniels, a forest ecology expert in the faculty of forestry at the University of B.C.

However, Daniels said that had unintended consequences over the last 50 years. The policy allowed the buildup of forests that were too densely planted with trees of the same species of uniform age. That left broad swaths of the province more vulnerable to fires and pests, such as the mountain pine beetle, at the same time climate change threatens to deliver more warmer, drier summer weather destined to raise fire risks.

The change to allow fires to burn where people and homes aren’t put at risk, Daniels argues, allows the province to break up that uniformity in the tree stands and promote the growth of more diverse forests that will be more resilient to fire in the future. “It seems so wasteful to let timber values to burn,” Daniels said. “That would be the short-term cost.”

Deciding when to let fires burn, however, is a more complicated formula that takes into account whether or not regions have already suffered timber losses to the mountain pine beetle, Meier said, particularly in areas where timber harvests will have to be reduced to remain sustainable. Meier’s staff works with B.C. chief forester Diane Nicholls to set priorities for which timber-supply areas have already been hard-hit with beetle losses and would be in line for more fire protection.

“You look at Prince George through (to) Kamloops, those (timber-supply areas) would be higher priority than others in the northwest that haven’t been hit by the beetle,” Meier said.

However, the Wildfire Service is involved in a constant planning process, Meier said, working with communities, First Nations and other government agencies to map out areas of risk and objectives for maintaining public safety and ecological restoration.

“We’re looking at so many different values, you can’t go in and make a black-and-white decision,” Meier said.

For the moment, Meier’s crews, 1,041 firefighters this year, are facing relatively quiet conditions after a hot, early start to the season with fires that scorched more than 90,000 hectares of land, mostly in the Peace River region

Late-spring and early summer rains throughout the province have dampened the fire risk since then, with just 14 fires larger than 10 hectares reported since June 1.

“We have some pockets that are still dry; the northwest of the province is still dry, the very southeast along the border is dry,” said Meier. “(But) right now we’re sitting good.”