Community wildfire risk: A holistic approach to wildfire resiliency
June 12, 2023 By John Davies
Wildfire is a natural process within many forest ecosystems. Due to historical and current policies and management, fire has been excluded from its natural role. The resultant effect is a state of unnatural (and risky) buildup of forest fuels, often within the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Warming climatic conditions along with fuel build up in the WUI are combining to create intensive wildfires that pose a risk to communities, and cultural and natural values. Successful mitigation of this risk requires returning ecosystems to a more resilient condition through management adaptation, social change, and an increase in the use of fire in forest management.
A holistic approach to wildfire resiliency combines people with skills and knowledge from various fire and forest specialties – boots on the ground, fire behaviour and ecology, fuels and suppression, fire modelling technology specialists and predictive services, community level educators, silviculture reforestation specialists – and positive relationships with government planners, local communities and First Nations, B.C. Wildfire Service (BCWS) and other government services and associations.
Forsite is working to mitigate landscape level wildfire risk for our clients by using this holistic approach and designing and providing solutions at the landscape level. In the past, community protection has been approached at too small of scale – 100 metres of FireSmart treatments as a fuel break, for example. Implementing mitigation solutions at a large scale often requires machinery, removal of large amounts of biomass, and collaboration between forest licensees, First Nations and communities. Undertaking such operations in the WUI requires an approach that balances fire behaviour reduction objectives with minimizing (or possibly enhancing) impacts on cultural, ecological, and social values on the landscape. Several such landscape level fuel breaks have been developed within the Thompson-Okanagan area of B.C. in the last six years; with four of these being tested by extreme wildfire in 2020 and 2021.
Forsite has been active within the Logan Lake Community Forest (60 km southwest of Kamloops, B.C.) for eight years. Small-scale FireSmart treatments within the community began decades ago. A relatively recent development, however, has been thinning forests with machinery, and in conjunction with fibre removal. Timber removal operations within the WUI has not been a standard practice and required consulting with First Nations and extensive public input, to balance community protection with the protection of values.
Treatments along the southern interface of the community were put to the test during the extreme fire season of 2021 when the Tremont Creek Fire raced towards the community. Due to the reduced fuel loading along the southern perimeter of the community, BCWS and industry were able to anchor suppression tactics and utilize planned ignition to burn off fuel ahead of the approaching fire. This tactic, combined with the use of sprinkler protection within the community, resulted in successful protection of the community with no structural losses.
Similarly, Frontline Operations Group (recently merged with Forsite) had a similar experience with Westshore Estates (located 40 km southwest of Vernon) and the White Rock Lake fire in 2021. Through work with the Okanagan Indian Band, a landscape level fuel break of approximately 100 ha around the community was developed. The break was anchored into an existing road and was over a kilometer in width at the southern end.
Knowing the fuel break was in place, the structural protection team assigned this flank of the fire set up an extensive water delivery system with mass water delivery, storage tanks, and sprinkler systems. On the night of August 13th, the fire, aided by strong winds, burst out of the Whiteman Creek drainage and headed south towards the community. The fire spotted into the fuel break at the southern end, igniting unburned piles within the fuel break and burning 700m in before suppression tactics brought it under control. The well anchored fuel break, and reduced fire intensity resulting from lower fuel loads, allowed structural fire fighters to utilize the provided safe defensible space and action the wildfire. Through gaining a social license to operate immediately behind peoples’ homes in the WUI, in stands that hold great social value, an environment was created that could only support low intensity wildfire, and it allowed fire professionals to safely implement suppression tactics against extreme fire behaviour.
The breaks would only have been further enhanced if prescribed burning was utilized post-treatment to abate fuel resulting from the treatment activities. Use of burning would have abated the woody fuels as well as consumed accumulated dead grass loading to further reduce fire behaviour and the fire rate of spread attributed to this fuel layer. Further support of Indigenous led cultural burning will help return ecosystems to pre-settlement condition where forests and grasslands were more absorbent and resilient to natural fire.
BCWS has some keen young people in key positions to steer wildland fire and wildfire management into the future, including the use of prescribed burning. Similarly, licensees are more open to the integration of wildland fire, and burning, into their planning and operations. As movements are made towards integrating fire back into ecosystem management, key steps are needed to facilitate training, knowledge, and proper usage of prescribed burning, a skill mostly lost among forest professionals today. Understanding how to manage issues around liability associated with the use of fire is another key step forward.
Meaningful movement towards addressing wildfire risk at an appropriate scale has occurred in the last six years, which coincidentally overlapped with three of the worst fire seasons in B.C. This momentum needs to continue. It will be uncomfortable and uncharted at times, but we must use the losses of these past years and the positive lessons from our successes to leap towards appropriate management decisions. Now is not the time to pump the brakes. Rather we need steady and meaningful acceleration into the future!
John Davies, RPF, is a local FireSmart representative and the manager of the new Forsite fire business unit. He has spent over 35 years working in every corner of B.C. timber cruising, tree planting and fighting forest fires, with the last 20 years focused solely on wildfire management consulting.
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