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  • Fact Checker: BC's wildfire strategy is leaving whole communities behind

    David Broadland

     The following opinion piece was written by Lori Daniels and Robert Gray, two well known BC experts on forest fires, and was published in the Times Colonist on February 4, 2022.


    AGAIN, IN 2021, record-breaking wildfires burned in British Columbia, fuelled by the heat dome, drought, wind and excessive forest fuels. Our homes and communities are vulnerable—flammable structures surrounded by forests and mountains with limited evacuation routes made even more hazardous by thick smoke. Entire communities have burned—businesses, homes and, tragically, lives lost. The cascading effects of torrential rain on burned and exposed mountainsides contributed to the catastrophic floods that severed transportation routes and further disrupted lives and livelihoods.

    The costs are in the billions of dollars, without accounting for the indirect price of trauma and smoke on human health or damages to drinking water and wildlife habitat. Again, we find ourselves calling for urgent transformation of forest and fire management to reconfigure our forests and communities to be resilient to wildfires fuelled by climate change and outdated forest practices.

    Record wildfires have also ravaged the western United States—sparking action. Last week, the U.S. Federal Government announced plans to spend USD50B over the next decade on wildfire mitigation. Hundreds of millions of dollars are earmarked for forest thinning and prescribed burning on public lands, incentives for private landowners and support for Indigenous communities to enable fuel treatments, and subsidies for bioenergy products from hazardous fuels. Investments are holistic—buffers around communities called the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI for short) supported by strategic treatments of surrounding landscapes. 

    BC sits at a crossroads: do we go big and bold like the US? Or, do we continue with the small-scale, individual-WUI approach that has been in place since 2004?

    BC’s approach has focused on the narrow buffer of land around communities, minimizing costs and impacts on timber supply. Not all communities benefit.

    Funding is prioritized on communities with high housing density and in the driest parts of the province—as a result, large communities, often with expensive homes, get the lion’s share of the money. And recently, some funding for proactively treating hazardous fuels has been redirected to education efforts to convince homeowners to take more responsibility to FireSmart (RT) their homes and properties. If 100 per cent of the community fully subscribed to FireSmart, and that’s a very optimistic scenario, physical homes and businesses could survive a fire, but the “community” would not.

    BC’s WUI-focused strategy surrenders our landscapes to severe fire effects —as we witnessed in 2017, 2018 and 2021. The costs to our society are mounting, as witnessed here in BC and the US, Australia, and other places impacted by extreme wildfires.

    Each year that hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests burn, BC residents and everyone downwind of us will suffer hundreds to thousands of premature deaths every year due to chronic smoke exposure, not to mention premature births and increased incidence of cognitive impairment. Watersheds delivering drinking water will require expensive rehabilitation and secondary water quality treatment. The timber harvesting land base will continue to shrink, resulting in mill closures, unemployment, and increased resource conflicts. Businesses such as agriculture and tourism will suffer from direct and indirect fire damage. Levels of social anxiety, depression and substance abuse will increase. Increasingly, municipal and provincial budgets will be consumed by reactive fire suppression and rehabilitation expenses. 

    Governments avoid going “big and bold”—it is politically risky. Going “small” spends less money and delivers short-term tangible results within an election cycle. Going “big and bold” requires long-term vision, but the dividends don’t accrue until well into the future. But adapting to wildfire is larger than politics—it is the difference between a future with options and opportunities for our children and grandchildren versus a future of very limited options and few opportunities. 

    Going “big and bold” for BC does not mean spending $50B over 10 years. Instead, it requires a significant shift in wildfire and forest management objectives and a change in priorities. The Province needs to heavily invest in WUI hazard reduction and radically shift landscape management from short-term timber supply to long-term resilience of ecosystems, habitats and productivity.

    Going forward, we need immediate, sustained, equitable, and large-scale action; we need to go “big and bold.” 

    Robert Gray is an AFE Certified Wildland Fire Ecologist and Dr. Lori Daniels is a Forest Ecologist at the University of British Columbia.

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    Re: “B.C.’s wildfire strategy is leaving whole communities behind,” op-ed, Times Colonist, Feb. 4.

    Lori Daniels and Robert Gray do not mention the role played by clearcuts and young plantations in the recent mega-fires. 

    These mega-fires were mostly ignited in clearcuts and then spread rapidly through vast areas of highly flammable, young plantations.  This observation appears to be borne out by satellite imagery. Yet, in this op-ed, the words "plantation" and "clearcut" are not to be found. 

    Surely the role of clearcuts and plantations in the recent mega wildfires has not escaped the notice of these two leading forest-fire experts?  So, why the omission?  Is it deliberate? If so, why?  

    For two authors that advocate "going big and bold”, why would they not recommend that the forest industry and government take remedial action to mitigate against wildfire (and against massive carbon emissions from logging) by reducing or stopping industrial clearcutting? That would certainly be bold. 

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    The BC forest-industrial complex will need to continue such public relations contortions since it can’t exist at its current scale without creating vast areas of highly flammable clearcuts and plantations. Both of those conditions have a higher fire hazard rating than mature and old forest, and the hazard stays high until the plantation reaches 30-ish years of age.

    It’s unclear whether Daniels and Gray are calling for “forest thinning” of plantations or “thinning” of primary forests. The latter simply translates to “logging.” Most of the area of primary forests near population centres in the Interior has already been logged once.

    If it’s plantations Daniels and Gray have their sights on, a more realistic approach would be to acknowledge the high fire hazard clearcuts and plantations are creating and then stop creating them at the current scale (around 250,000 hectares each year including both public and private land in BC). Between 80-90 percent (depending on the year) of the volume logged is for export. Yet this contributes only a tiny fraction of BC’s GDP.

    BC is paying far too high a price for those exports, including all the impacts Daniels and Gray list.

    American forest and fire ecologist Chad Hanson, in his book Smokescreen (and elsewhere), has argued that calls for “thinning” as a response to forest fire hazard are thinly disguised calls for commercial logging by the “political allies” of the forest industry.

    In a chapter of Smokescreen (What You Aren’t Being Told About “Thinning”) Hanson writes, “All around the world, from North America to western Europe to Australia, the logging industry and its political allies—which include some nongovernmental organizations—are telling the public that forest “thinning” will prevent large wildland fires, reduce tree mortality, and make forests more resilient to climate change. This message has become so pervasive that many people accept it as truth without examining the evidence, which tells a very different story. One of the most fundamental faults with this narrative is that current research, using field-based data, has found that logging conducted under the rubric of thinning for fire management results in a large overall reduction in the amount of carbon stored in forests and a large increase in carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Stated differently, thinning kills far more trees than it saves, even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that it reduces fire intensity in a given area, which it often doesn’t. A key problem is that thinning does not take into account the well-established fact that only a tiny percentage of the tree biomass (on average, 1 to 4 percent), and therefore tree carbon, is consumed in forest fires.”

    (Hanson, Chad T. Smokescreen (p. 110). The University Press of Kentucky. Kindle Edition.)

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    First, I agree with Anthony and David. Here are some additional thoughts.

    Provision of "subsidies for bioenergy products from hazardous fuels" is not going "big and bold," unless one thinks that exacerbating the climate and biodiversity crises are desirable "big and bold" activities.

    The necessary transformative change to address wildfire risk starts with redefining "forestry" to mean protection and restoration of ecological integrity and resilience, as opposed to timber extraction and wood products development.  The latter uses of forests need to be seen as byproducts of the protection of essential forest benefits, like pure air, high quality water in moderate flows, climate moderation through high levels of carbon sequestration and storage, and maintenance of natural levels of biodiversity.

    There will be places where timber removal fits with forest protection and restoration, provided ecologically-based, precautionary decision-making is carried out.  However, the timber harvesting land base, by its very name, currently sets the stage for ecological degradation in most applications of forestry.  Ecological degradation is followed closely by social and economic degradation.  We need to see the forest land base, not as logs standing vertically, but as our storehouse of essential benefits needed by all life, a storehouse to be carefully used, treated with reciprocity, and regenerated following Nature's design.

    Not only does this change make sense in the climate change era, it has always made sense.  Over the many millennia of Indigenous management of forests, informed by Indigenous knowledge, ecological integrity and resilience were maintained.  Relatively recently, western science has begun to catch up with Indigenous science/knowledge to add to the support for forest protection and restoration to replace timber exploitation.  This oft ignored knowledge, coupled with the reality that clearcut-tree- plantation-oriented forestry produces a small and ever decreasing part of the GDP and employment and there are compelling reasons to shift the meaning of forestry to forest protection and restoration. Employment from forest protection and restoration needs to be widely applied to virtually all clearcuts and tree plantations. This gargantuan undertaking will outstrip current levels of timber-oriented forestry employment, as well as providing more satisfying employment for forest workers.

    Forest protection and restoration could be funded by redirecting the multi-million dollar subsidies provided for timber companies to exploit and degrade forests to forest protection and restoration activities.  Now there is a big and bold action!  

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    "B.C. sits at a crossroads: do we go big and bold like the U.S.? Or, do we continue with the small-scale, individual-WUI approach that has been in place since 2004?"

    Neither. Daniels and Gray are asking the wrong question. Both approaches are just logging in disguise, and make carbon emissions from forests much worse.

    The best Fire Management is to ban clearcutting. Primary full canopy forests are the most Fire Smart forests, and retain 70% more biomass, moisture, and other ecosystem services like flood control.

    Converting our plantations back into mature forests is firesmarting. Primary forests are smarter than us. 

    An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of non-cure. 

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    Well said Herb and Ben. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Herb: Many of us agree that a culture that ignores ecological realities will get deeper and deeper in trouble, including by over-exploiting forests. We can see the results of that over-exploitation in the forest fires, floods and species loss and the increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. If there were a first step to be taken toward ecologically-based, precautionary decision-making, what is that step and how do we start to take it?

    Ben: Isn't clearcutting an effect rather than a cause? What causes clearcutting? Yes, chainsaws and feller-bunchers, but why are those machines in the forest in the first place? It doesn't happen for no reason, especially at the scale (~250,000 hectares per year if we count both publicly owned and private land) that its occurring in BC. The ultimate cause is the export market for lumber. That market demands lumber for building homes and other structures, mainly in the USA. Those exports are the cause of the clearcuts. How do we convince British Columbians that we can't afford to be an environmental sacrifice zone for the USA, China and Japan? Our two biggest clearcut-causing customers, China and the USA, are also the #1 and #3 largest exporters of wood products, according to 2016 Natural Resources Canada data (see table below).

    What is the first step to take to get influential British Columbians—folks like Daniels and Gray—to understand that logging is creating as much economic damage in BC as economic gain? Or is it causing more?



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    For a firsthand look at at the problematic Wildfire Risk Reduction Harvest plan please visit Nakusp BC. I encourage  everyone involved in the Evergreen Alliance to look closely at our local landscape level experiment, the total areas of interest of this plan total 48000 hectares. Thinning proposed in sensitive watersheds, north facing mature timber with 50% stem removal, shaded fuel breaks are really clearcut for profit, not protection.

    I would like to thank Herb Hammond for his commitment to a program of solutions and repair. The responsibility to repair our forests' capacity to sustain our ecosystems is ours. The program for our future dealing with fire should not include deforestation for profit of the government-industrial complex. I would also like to point out that bike trails through logging patches are not going to provide oxygen, water or shade folks.

    The first step in recovery is the mass  cultivation of hemp to replace the building materials that we use from the forest for building and paper. The lead time needed for this replacement is minimal and technology exists for production. Employment could  increase if done correctly and we would  still have forests to use minus the land base required for cultivation. Farming could be the future for lumber. Annual production of fiber, food  and fuel is bold.

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    Just found this interesting reporting in Northern Beat by Jeff Davies: BC Wildfires—more than just climate change.

    In the story, Robert Gray acknowledges the role logging is playing in BC's large forest fires. For example, he states, "The fire problem is no longer unmanaged stands. The fire problem is all the managed stands full of slash."

    Davies reported: "Gray says many of the big fires in B.C.’s southern Interior over the past year ravaged forests that had already been harvested, were being harvested, or had nothing the industry considered worth harvesting."

    Referring to the White Rock Lake fire in the Okanagan in 2021, Gray told Davies, "That fire was driven by cutblocks…When you look at the fires that threatened Ashcroft and Savona and the White Rock Lake Fire and all those fires, the July Mountain one up on the Coquihalla, they were all burning through leave stands—they weren't harvested because of poor economics or poor accessibility—and harvest blocks."

    That article was published a month before the Times-Colonist op-ed with Lori Daniels.

    Yet none of Gray's awareness of the role clearcuts and plantations are playing in making forest fires bigger and more numerous can be found in his op-ed with Lori Daniels.

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