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  • Most of BC's 2023 wildfires burned in a small area of BC subject to intense industrial development, but nobody is talking about that. Why not?


    David Broadland

    Scientists, climate activists and media all around the world said BC’s record-breaking fires in 2023 were “fuelled by climate change”. Largely ignored were the actual fuels that make lightning-ignited fires easier to start and harder to control, leading to larger fires. 

     

    DonnieCreekFireMay182023closein.thumb.jpg.9574fe27271e69221d37de2dac8a72d3.jpg

    The southern edge of the Donnie Creek fire on May 18, 2023. At this point the fire was burning through black spruce, clearcuts, gas developments and melting permafrost exposed by logging and gas development.

     

    HOW MANY OF YOU have noticed that of the 2.84 million hectares of land that burned in BC this year, 1.79 million hectares—nearly 63 percent of the total area burned—was in the far northeast corner of the province?

    The four largest fires in BC this year all occurred in the triangle of BC that lies on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains. That corner, which is ecologically and geologically distinct from the rest of BC, occupies about 12 percent of the land base of the province. For 63 percent of the burned area to be concentrated in a region that occupies just 12 percent of BC suggests that the factors that have influenced the number and size of fires in the northeast aren’t necessarily the same as those impacting the southern part of the province. Consider the record-breaking 619,073-hectare Donnie Creek Fire.

    The BC Wildfire Service early on attributed the aggressiveness of the Donnie Creek Fire to the dryness of the black spruce stands it burned. At the time the fire exploded on May 12, the foliar moisture content of the region’s black spruce was at its annual low point (the “spring dip”), allowing a slower-moving ground fire to more easily become a faster-moving crown fire. Climate change at work, right?

    Forest scientists, however, have noted that the “spring dip” of black spruce has been “judged to be not so much a weather-dependent effect but as largely physiological in nature”. I understand that to mean that black spruce’s dried condition in early spring would occur with or without climate change.

    Black spruce is a highly flammable conifer. The US Forest Service states that black spruce forests are “the most flammable vegetation types in interior Alaska”. Once it gets burning, it’s hard to stop.

     

    DonnieCeeekWildfireBCWildFireService.thumb.jpg.802eda187d123a58c1a2b6173a63775b.jpg

    The Donnie Creek Fire encroaching on gas industry drilling site (Photo: BC Wildfire Service)

     

    The range of Black spruce in BC is concentrated in the northeast corner of BC. This is the area of the province lying to the east of the Rocky Mountains, which we might also want to think of as BC’s triangle of fire.

     

    RangeofblackspruceinBC(MoF).thumb.jpg.9fd9aa62d89d63597e00580f6ff08934.jpg

    Range of black spruce in BC

    How did climate change impact the triangle of fire this year? A review of NASA’s mapping of the land surface temperature anomaly (diagrams below) shows that the region was much warmer than usual in January, colder than usual in February, and not far from normal in March and April leading up to the start of the northeastern fires in early May.

     

    Jan-Feb-Mar2023.thumb.jpg.4be9374ba402101d74c670c3fbdb59ef.jpg

    Temperature anomaly in BC’s triangle of fire (denoted by red point) was hotter than usual in January, cooler than usual in February, slightly warmer than usual in March (Mapping by NASA).

     

    While the heating and drying effects caused by higher temperatures and less precipitation from May onwards no doubt increased the flammability of the black spruce forests, there are likely additional factors that amplified 2023’s land surface temperature anomaly. This includes the presence of elevated levels of methane at ground level, which raises ground level temperature and may be adding to forest combustibility. Where is such methane coming from? There are two primary sources: Methane released by decomposing plants that were formerly frozen in permafrost and, secondly, geologic methane. Let’s consider each of those, starting with methane released by melting permafrost.

     

    Melting permafrost is releasing methane that comes from both decomposing plants and geologic methane

    A 2020 peer-reviewed study (Geological methane emissions and wildfire risk in the degraded permafrost area of the Xiao Xing’an Mountains, China, Wei Shan et al) published by Nature looked at the impact of released methane on ground level temperature in an area of northeastern China underlain by degrading permafrost. The area is experiencing an increase in frequency of forest fires. The Chinese scientists attributed at least part of this increase in fires to warmer temperatures at ground level that are the result of the release of methane from melting permafrost. The scientists also suggested that the methane could be adding to the “combustibility” of forests.

    The study noted that “Methane gas released into the atmosphere in permafrost regions is generally believed to be derived from microbial gases released from melted sediments or local release of [geologic] gas.”

    Other scientists, too, have reported that melting permafrost releases geologic methane.

    Maps of Canada’s permafrost show that the areas in which the largest 2023 fires occurred in northeastern BC are underlain with discontinuous, sporadic or isolated patches of permafrost. In other words, areas where once-continuous permafrost is now degrading.

    The effects the Chinese scientists found in their study areas in northeastern China could very well be in play in BC’s triangle of fire.

    Besides the increased melting of permafrost resulting from global heating, other human-made physical changes to the land are known to increase methane release from such areas.

    Inside the Donnie Creek Fire’s perimeter there are significant areas of forest that have been removed: clearcuts for timber, gas and logging industry service roads, drilling sites and other gas infrastructure sites, and thousands of kilometres of pipelines and seismic exploration lines. Forest removal, whether it occurs as a result of fire or industrial development, is known to increase the rate at which permafrost melts, thereby increasing the amount of methane released.

    If the impacts of all of these changes on melting permafrost and the subsequent release of methane are resulting in more and larger forest fires in BC’s and Canada’s boreal regions, then, as scientists have reported, one of the consequences would be an even larger release of methane which is produced by the forest fires themselves. Methane is 28-34 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

    Comparison of where fires have occurred in Canada’s boreal region shows that a high percentage of them overlap the belt of degrading permafrost. Has the permafrost system been nudged over a tipping point? If so, what role did industrial development play in the nudging?

     

    LocationoffiresinCanadato2021.thumb.jpg.3acdddba82189bacb708332f150992fb.jpg

     

    permafrostacrossCanada.thumb.jpg.35dc57620bbde1d58d5f429b0ba05964.jpg

    Location of degrading permafrost in Canada aligns well with where forest fires have occurred.

     

     

    BC gas and oil industry is also releasing geologic methane

    But forest removal and subsequent melting of permafrost is not the only pathway by which more methane is being released in BC’s triangle of fire. The region is part of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, an area rich in hydrocarbon deposits. During the last 20 years, BC’s burgeoning hydraulically fractured gas well industry has installed thousands of wells, compressors, pumping stations, tank batteries, valves, processing facilities and thousands of kilometres of pipelines. This equipment is known to leak methane to the atmosphere. Lots of it.

    Within the perimeter of the Donnie Creek Fire alone, we counted over 1000 separate gas-industry infrastructure sites. Most of these are drilling sites that contain anywhere from one to twenty individual wells each.

    How much methane is leaking? A 2017 study, sponsored by the David Suzuki Foundation, estimated that actual methane emissions at ground level, which included all sources, were 2.5 times BC Energy Regulator’s estimates. A 2020 analysis of BC Energy Regulator’s record of leakage from hydraulically fractured wells found that 11 percent of wells are leaking. A study published in 2021 estimated that methane emissions in BC are 1.6 to 2.2 times “current federal inventory estimates”.

    In other words, we don’t know. But likely more than is being admitted. In any case, would release of geologic methane have an impact?

    The study by Chinese scientists mentioned above stated “On the one hand, the ‘greenhouse effect’ caused by the release of methane gas will increase the air temperature, which creates favorable conditions for wildfires. On the other hand, the combustibility of methane may also promote regional wildfires.”

    Global heating obviously played a significant role in the Donnie Creek and other large fires in BC’s triangle of fire in 2023, but ignoring or denying the impact that industrial development could be playing in making those fires larger would be foolish.

     

    Are Canadian government scientists ignoring impacts of industrial development?

    So it was a bit surprising to find that a scientific study authored by a number of Canadian scientists (Abrupt, climate induced increase in wildfires in British Columbia since the mid-2000s, Parisien et al) failed to mention any of the above. The study was released this summer and highlighted the Donnie Creek Fire as though it somehow reinforced the scientists’ main finding that climate change is the main driver of BC’s forest fires. Yet the study did not mention known impacts of industrial development on melting permafrost or include data from either 2022’s or 2023’s forest fires in BC.

    The lead author of the study, Marc Parisien, is a scientist with Natural Resources Canada in Alberta. The “Raison d’être” of Natural Resources Canada is “to improve the quality of life of Canadians by ensuring that our natural resources are developed sustainably, providing a source of jobs, prosperity and opportunity, while preserving our environment and respecting our communities and Indigenous peoples.”

    Aside from noting that the practice of eliminating deciduous species from managed plantations contributes to the growing forest fire problem, the scientists acknowledged little or no connection between industrial development in BC forests and the rapid increase in the rate at which forests here are burning. Instead, they implied that any such connection was “ambiguous”.

    Yet one of the contributing authors to the study is BC’s John Gray, a wildfire ecologist. Following 2021’s disasterous fires in southern BC, Gray was interviewed by Jeff Davies of the Northern Beat for a story titled “BC Wildfires—more than just climate change”. At the time, Gray told Davies: “The fire problem is no longer unmanaged stands. The fire problem is all the managed stands full of slash.” No ambiguity there.

    In danger of being lost in the din of news stories and scientific studies focussed on “climate-change-fuelled forest fires” is the role that industrial development plays in increasing fire hazard on the ground by creating—year after year—thousands of square kilometres of “kindling”.

    As noted above, little attention has being paid, so far, to the unique form of kindling industrial development has left scattered across BC’s northeastern triangle of fire.

    In BC’s south (by which I mean south of Prince George), the “kindling” takes the form of logging slash and highly flammable young plantations. That fuel makes it easier for fires to be ignited—by both lightning and humans. Because of the higher rate of spread of fire in logging slash and young plantations, that makes fires initially harder to control.

    Those initially harder-to-control fires quickly find—because of their pervasiveness across almost any southern BC landscape—nearby clearcuts and young plantations, where the same rapid growth occurs. This dangerous combination of high-hazard fuel conditions and the widespread availability of those conditions is inevitably leading to larger fires.

    While the increased temperature and lower humidity that come with global heating increase fire hazard across the landscape, the impact is higher in clearcuts than in forests. Scientists report that the ground temperature in clearcuts is considerably higher than in nearby managed or unmanaged forests. This means, logically, that on any given extreme fire-weather day, fire hazard will be greater in clearcuts. With the widespread and growing prevalence of clearcuts, the end result should be obvious: Climate change is amplifying the influence of logging on fire.

    As well, scientists have reported that the hotter temperature in clearcuts has a heating and drying effect on remaining stands of older forest adjacent to the clearcuts. The effect can extend into the forest more than 240 metres from the edge of the clearcut.

    Further, scientists have reported that stands of pine burn at a rate 8.4 times higher than stands of deciduous species. Eradication of fire-resistant species like aspen in plantations of commercially desirable pine—a wide-spread, ongoing practice in BC—is destroying the natural fire break deciduous species provide. Hence, larger fires.

    The southern part of BC, where almost all logging occurs, now has a vast, constantly-being-renewed area of monoculture clearcuts and young plantations where deciduous species are erradicated. As primary forests continue to be liquidated and plantations are logged at a younger and younger age, the area of dangerously flammable clearcuts and young plantations is continuing to grow relative to the volume being extracted. Unless the overall allowable annual cut is reduced significantly, this issue will get more acute and dangerous. As global heating creates longer fire seasons with hotter maximum temperatures, lower humidity and stronger winds, all this human-created danger is combining to produce larger forest fires, which, in turn, amplify climate change.

    Has southern BC, too, reached a tipping point? In many of the big fires of 2021, a high percentage of the area within a fire’s perimeter had been previously disturbed by logging (see image below; see more images here). At some point, presumably, there would be too much logging slash and young plantations to be able to suppress fires. Have we already reached that point, or are we just getting closer?

     

    FlatLakeFireperimeterwithloggedareas.thumb.jpg.b0ff61a099290ffb55c1efbf9d894b2c.jpg

    The August 6, 2021 perimeter of the 60,000-hectare Flat Lake Fire (black line) superimposed on top of the BC ministry of forests RESULTS Openings record of logging (red-shaded area). The green-shaded area is Flat Lake Provincial Park.

     

    There doesn’t appear to be any organized plan by government or industrial forest scientists to confess to what is turning out to be the crime of the century: The intentional liquidation of BC’s much more fire-resistant primary forests and the production of tens of millions of hectares of “kindling” during a time of a growing climate emergency—and a cover-up to blame the effects on “climate change”.

    There is, however, a glimmer of light that has begun to appear in Ministry of Forests records of the total volume of trees removed from BC clearcuts each year. That volume has begun to fall. In the twelve months from the beginning of December 2022 to the end of November 2023, the overall volume cut in BC was about 36 million cubic metres. This is approximately 50 percent below what ministry timber supply analysts had predicted for this year in 2004—at the height of the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation. It is unlikely that this fall in volume is being intentionally orchestrated by the machinery of the Ministry of Logging; it is more likely that past misjudgments about future timber supply are beginning to assert themselves.

    In either case, since clearcutting and plantations raise fire hazard for up to 30 years or more, the current era of dangerously large fires in the south will likely get worse for many more years. In the north—in BC’s triangle of fire—the impacts of industrial development, including logging and further exploration and development of gas fields, will melt more and more permafrost. In each case, without a drastic decline in the area of BC being logged each year, further industrial development will simply worsen the impacts of climate change. Why are British Columbians allowing this to happen? Why are they not outraged?

    Related stories:

    Clearcut logging increases forest fire risk

    The forest-industrial complex’s Molotov clearcuts 

    Current BC reforestation is 19th century quack medicine


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    The irrefutable facts detailed in this article contain the critical keys to fire prevention & forest management planning going forward, & therefore must be included & prioritized in the BC govt's 'biodiversity & ecosystem health framework' plan underway for Spring '24 -- & they echo my own deep concerns & frustration expressed in my 'PlanetSedge' blog (on Blogger.com) (as well as in numerous letters to govt. & conversations with associates, friends & strangers alike) over the past decade.  I too have been pushed to ask the exact 2 questions posed at the article's end, ad infinitum it seems, without 1 cogent/ logical/ lucid reply received.  While my own (in)ability to convince/ recruit others to join this urgent call for 'eco-justice' from MLAs may be stunted by limits of influence/ whatever, my clearheaded view of the situation (bolstered by constantly-sought-out expertise found in articles like these) fuels endless dissatisfaction -- & yes rage -- with the officials whose undeserved dominion over the fate of our invaluable primary forests (= literally, LICENCE TO KILL) is tantamount to treason.  Somehow, these truths need to GET TO all BCers, come what may -- & ASAP.

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