First Cut: July August 2015
As of late July, the number of forest fires in B.C. this year had reached 1,290 with a total of 295,154 hectares burned. Thousands of residents in B.C. and Saskatchewan have been temporarily removed from their communities as firefighters from Canada, U.S. and Australia bravely battle blazes in an effort to control the damage to our country’s western forests.
One significant difference with the wildfires talking place this year is the increase in the number of coastal fires taking place. Fire has spread to some of the old-growth management areas that haven’t experienced fires this significant in hundreds of years. The last time there were coastal fires of this nature was at the beginning of European settlement, so firefighters don’t have a lot of experience in this region.
One of the challenges firefighters face is the lack of a Canadian forest fire danger rating system for the specific fuel types being burned, according to Kelly Johnston, executive director of the Partners in Protection Association, the non-profit association that created the FireSmart program.
The size of the burning trees within the coastal region create significant safety hazards to firefighters as well, since they are upwards of 100-feet tall and three metres wide.
Of course, wildfires are a natural part of British Columbia’s landscape and help keep forests healthy and resilient. There will always be some collateral damage in communities, with homes and buildings being damaged or destroyed. However, can we as an industry do more to help prevent the level of damage being inflicted in some of these communities? If you ask Kelly, the answer is “yes”.
I had a chance to speak with Kelly shortly after he returned from battling 12,000-ha., 5,000-ha. and 2,500-ha. fires in the Pemberton area.
He says there are two major challenges when trying to get communities actively involved in fire prevention and preparedness, more specifically, the FireSmart program; which is designed to educate communities on how to live with, and manage, wildfires (It is recognized in almost all provinces and territories and referenced in the Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy).
The first challenge is people’s short-term memories. It’s easy to engage communities after they experience a serious fire. Unfortunately, their interest in prevention tends to die off relatively quickly. This is because communities need to focus on other priorities moving forward.
Another problem is that the people fighting the fires are also depended on to educate at-risk communities, which means they are unavailable during the times that communities are most likely to listen.
The second challenge is a lack of funding for fire prevention at the provincial level, according to Kelly. He says provinces and communities have done a good job with what they have, they just need better resources.
So, how can the forestry sector help communities become better prepared to deal with wildfires? Kelly has an answer: By exerting its influence in the communities they serve.
Many of the at-risk communities rely on the forestry sector for employment, tax revenues, and more. In other words, when forestry companies within these communities voice their concerns, there’s a good chance that governments are going to listen.
Kelly says that any of the large forest operators getting involved in the FireSmart program would also be a big help.
A lot of provincial agencies are looking at wildfire prevention at the landscape level, including a lot of the harvesting areas where companies operate. So getting involved at the landscape level and working with provincial agencies is important – although he fully understands that these types of discussions require some “high-level talks” within companies.
As we finished our chat, Kelly left off with this
“I think that with these wide-spread fires, increases in population and current predictions on the climate, it would be prudent on a national level to invest into communities becoming fire adaptive and resilient.”
Makes sense to me. After all, preventative medicines are typically the best medicines, and the least costly.