Jump to content
  • Journalism: Increase in forest fire hazard

    David Broadland
    Wildfires in BC are getting bigger. Much bigger. The forest-industrial complex blames fire suppression. The evidence suggests large areas of fuel-laden clearcuts are changing fire behaviour.
    March 2020
    A RECORD COMPILED BY BC GOVERNMENT SCIENTISTS since 1990 captures in cold, hard numbers the scale of the ecological apocalypse underway in BC’s Interior forests. The record shows that since 1990, the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by wildfires in BC has doubled every nine years.
    For the nine years from 1990 to 1998, scientists estimated 52.3 million tonnes (megatonnes) of greenhouse gas emissions were released to the atmosphere by forest fires. From 1999 to 2007, that more than doubled to 120.9 megatonnes. Over the next 9-year period, ending with 2016, the total released doubled again, to 249.8 megatonnes.
    In 2017, 1,353 fires burned 1.22 million hectares, including some very large fires, all in BC’s Interior: the 191,865-hectare Elephant Hill Fire, the 545,151-hectare Chilcotin Plateau Fire—which was actually the merging of 20 separate fires—and the 241,160-hectare Hanceville Fire, another merging of smaller fires into a mega-fire.
    BC scientists estimated 176.6 megatonnes of greenhouse gases were released into the atmosphere by those 2017 fires.
    The next year was even worse: 2,117 fires burned 1.36-million hectares. Scientists haven’t yet made public their estimate of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere for that year, but it will likely be close to 200 megatonnes.

    Greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires in BC have doubled every nine years since 1990. The last 3 years suggest that rate of increase will continue.
    Last year—2019—saw a cooler, wetter summer and a relief for wildfire fighters. Yet the first three years of the current 9-year interval have already released 75 percent of the 500 megatonnes needed to maintain the doubling of the carbon released every nine years.
    All of the biggest fires, in both 2017 and 2018, occurred in areas where the impact of Mountain Pine Beetle infestation over the past 20 years has been most intense. The beetles have affected 16 million hectares of BC forests—an area more than five times that of Vancouver Island.
    Large areas of the 2017 fires overlapped salvage clearcuts of beetle-killed trees. In a report on the impact of the 2017 fires, the Ministry of Forests noted that about 80 percent of the fires’ area occurred in forests “significantly impacted” by Mountain Pine Beetle. The four largest fires of 2018 also burned in areas damaged by beetle infestation.
    The magnitude of the release makes provincial and municipal plans for reducing carbon emissions in BC appear functionally pointless—like trying to drain the Fraser River with a garden hose.
    Can anything be done to slow or reverse the trend toward bigger wildfires? That would depend on what’s causing wildfires to be bigger and whether or not humans can reverse the cause.
    Recently, the Vancouver Sun reported that two BC forestry scientists, Werner Kurz and Lori Daniels, are representing Canada in “a $1-million partnership between Canadian researchers and the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service to ‘de-escalate the devastating forest wildfires that are increasingly occurring due to climate change.’”
    The Sun reporter, Randy Shore, interviewed Daniels, a professor of forestry at UBC, who told him: “We are paying a huge cost in carbon today because we were so good at putting out fires in the past.”
    Daniels believes wildfires are getting bigger because of the build-up of fuel in forests, which Shore described as “fallen needles and dead branches.” If fire hadn’t been suppressed, those needles and dead branches would have been burned off by natural fire.
    Daniels offered a solution: “What happens if we thin out the forest and reduce the stress on those trees competing for a limiting resource like soil moisture?...Will the trees left behind grow faster and sequester more carbon? There is lots of evidence that under some circumstances, that is the case.”
    For such thinning to be effective at reducing fuel in the forest it would have to be removed. Daniels suggested the possible development of a new biomass economy: “If it is going to be burned, we should do that at high efficiency and displace fossil fuel with a form of sustainable energy. Lots of small communities are still reliant on fossil fuels, so these are linkages that we can make.”
    The idea sounds eminently reasonable, doesn’t it? But what if it’s wrong? What if “fire suppression” is not at the heart of escalating wildfires? Do forest scientists ever get things wrong?
    The forest-industrial complex—the forest-interested government agencies, industry, universities and media—that has led BC into the black-box carbon trap of exponentially-increasing emissions outlined above, is unable to hold itself accountable for the environmentally disastrous forestry practices it devised that have contributed disproportionately to a warmer climate. Its miscalculation of what was sustainable created giant clearcuts that shrivelled the forests’ ability to sequester carbon. That played a significant role in making winters too warm to kill the Mountain Pine Beetle, and that change was followed by widespread pine mortality, immense areas of salvage clearcuts, and now giant wildfires roaring through those same clearcuts.
    Now, it appears, the forest-industrial complex is diverting our attention away from what’s actually happening on the ground. The accumulation of giant clearcuts has altered microclimates and left hundreds of millions of tonnes of fuel on the ground. And now it’s burning, easily ignited by lightning, and affecting fire behaviour.

    A BC Wildfire Service air tanker tackles an aggressive wildfire in a clearcut
    An August 2018 “incident update” by the BC Wildfire Service describes the “behaviour prediction” for a fire near the Baezaeko River west of Quesnel: “Fire activity will have the potential to challenge control lines; don’t let your guard down. Be aware of gusty winds and the effect on fire behaviour, if only for a short time. The slash blocks have more fuel loading than the standard slash fuel type, expect higher intensity. This higher intensity can cause fire whirls to develop; this would cause rapid fire growth and increased spotting potential.”
    “Fire whirls” are like small tornados, formed by the rapid uplift of air in an intense fire. “Spotting” is the ability of fires to send out embers far ahead of a fire and start new fires. Wildfire Service incident updates commonly note the impact of logging slash in clearcuts that makes fires burn more intensely and dangerously.
    Yet nowhere to be seen in the forest-industrial complex’s description of what needs to happen now is an examination of the ways in which a landscape increasingly dominated by very large clearcuts has changed the behaviour of fire in BC’s forests. Nowhere to be seen is the option of reducing the volume of timber cut in BC to allow the provincial forests’ carbon sequestration capacity to recover.
    Unless you are delusionally optimistic, there’s no reason to believe that feeding tree parts to industrial burners will reduce the acceleration in the thermal destruction of BC’s forests. Once jobs are created to feed the burners, those bio-jobs will become the thing that must be protected at all costs. That way of thinking is what gave BC the beetle infestation in the first place.
    The stated belief that the acceleration in wildfire emissions is due to past fire suppression appears destined to become one of the great, all-time dead-end ideas in BC’s short but dramatic history of ecosystem disruption.
    Unless there is some real change in the fundamental factor driving this acceleration—the loss of BC forests’ carbon sequestration capacity—then between 2026 and 2034, the fifth nine-year interval in this exponential increase, BC forest fires will produce a total of 1,000 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions, or an average of 110 megatonnes per year. The Mountain Pine Beetle infestation affected 16 million hectares of BC forests. Only a small fraction of these have burned, so there’s a high risk of more and bigger fires in the coming years.
    An aside to those folks who might think the scientists are purposely overestimating emissions from wildfires in order to justify amping up industrialization of forests: the estimate for 2017 works out to about 50 tonnes of forest carbon per hectare, which is less than what would be left on the ground after an Interior clearcut.
    Let’s put the magnitude of the wildfire emissions problem in perspective. BC’s carbon emissions—from all sources except forest-related emissions—totalled 64 megatonnes in 2017. CleanBC, the provincial government’s emissions reduction plan, has so far been able to identify, on paper, just 19 megatonnes of annual reductions it hopes will happen by 2030. LNG Canada at Kitimat will trigger 9 megatonnes. Teck Resources’ Frontier oil sands project was going to produce 4 megatonnes. The City of Victoria is targetting about 0.390 megatonnes through its climate action plan.
    Compare those drops in the bucket to the 110 megatonnes of annual emissions from forest fires alone that now seem certain to be in our near future. Other net emissions—the loss of forest carbon sequestration capacity and the premature decay of forest carbon initiated by harvesting—caused by BC’s forest industry and tallied in Defusing BC’s big, bad carbon bomb in our last edition—are upwards of 190 megatonnes each year.
    It’s the Province’s official position that it can’t do anything about any of these forest-industry-caused emissions. Although the exponential growth in emissions from wildfires outlined above appears in the British Columbia Provincial Greenhouse Gas Inventory, as do other emissions related to BC’s forest industry, they are not counted in BC like your car’s tailpipe emissions. Is that because they don’t impact climate stability? No, it’s because the Province claims nothing can be done about these net emissions.
    In the Province’s Methodology Book for the British Columbia Provincial Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the authors state that emissions from forest fires “are more volatile and subject to natural factors outside of direct human control and so are not reported as part of BC GHG emissions totals…”
    Yet it has become an article of faith of the forest-industrial complex that historical fire suppression by humans is the primary cause of big fires, and big fires mean higher emissions. This official confusion is disconcerting and demands a ground-truthing expedition.
    FOLLOWING THE FIRES OF 2017, which included the 191,865-hectare Elephant Hill Fire, the Ministry of Forests’ Pat Byrne, district manager of the 100-Mile House Natural Resource District, told the 100-Mile Free Press in July 2018: “Much of the area that was burned by both the Gustafsen and Elephant Hill fires, they burned over fire-dependent ecosystems…These ecosystems rely on fires as much as the soil and the air and the water they get. It’s how they evolve…The forest relies on a 10 to 15 year fire cycle to thin out the vegetation and create a more open forest…Removing fire from the landscape resulted in a dense forest and created conditions where fire could burn hotter and more aggressively than a natural setting would have ever allowed.”
    Byrne told the Free Press: “You’ve got a fire-dependent ecosystem and you exclude fire from it. What do you expect is going to happen?”
    The usual refutation of the “fire suppression causes big fires” belief is that “The Big Burn” of 1910 in Idaho, Montana, Washington and BC, occurred before the era of fire suppression had begun. The Big Burn, also known as “The Great Fire,” “The Devil’s Broom,” and “The Big Blow-up,” burned through 1.2 million hectares, which just happens to be about what was burned in BC in 2017.
    The Ministry of Forests’ own records show that four of the ten largest fires (in area) in BC’s recorded history occurred before the era of fire suppression began.
    If big, aggressive fires occurred before aircraft were able to bomb fires with water and fire retardant, how valid is the forest-industrial complex’s claim that “fire suppression” is the main cause for today’s big fires?
    There’s even more-convincing evidence that the fire-suppression-causes-big-fires narrative may be a big smoke screen blown into the talkosphere so the forest industry can cut more trees.
    One of the tools that’s available today that allows us to ground-truth the claims of the forest-industrial complex—to actually see what wildfires are burning—is satellite photography. We can compare aerial images taken before a fire with images taken afterward to see what was burned, and how completely it burned.
    Satellite photography of the area burned by the Elephant Hill Fire north of Arrowrock Provincial Park shows that much of the area had been severely modified in the last 20 years (below). At the time of the fire, it was mostly regrowth in clearcuts and unplanted clearcuts. In this area there was little “dense forest” left to burn. On Ministry of Forests maps of the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation, this area is shown as having a 71 to 100 percent rate of “kill” of lodgepole pine, hence the widespread clearcuts left by salvage logging.

    (Click image to enlarge) This part of the Elephant Hill Fire, according to Ministry of Forests’ mapping of the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation, had been heavily impacted by beetle kill. Earlier satellite images, taken after the salvage logging but before the fire, show some areas with regrowth and other areas with none. Only the oldest regrowth survived the 2017 fire. Many thousands of square kilometers of former lodgepole pine forest, killed by beetles and salvaged, were burned in 2017 and 2018. The beetle infestation has affected 16,000,000 hectares of BC forest, only a small fraction of which has been burned by 2020.
    The area shown above is typical of the juxtaposition of giant fires and massive clearcuts that are transforming BC’s interior forests into a wasteland. The density of mature forest has been reduced to thin ribbons of dark green separating seemingly endless burned-over clearcuts. Only the roads and wetlands are fireproof.
    Satellite imagery allows us to see, close-up, the fate of specific features engulfed by the fires. The images below show one such area burned by the Elephant Hill Fire. The first image below was taken about 2010. It shows clearcuts that have been partially replanted. Note the light green regrowth, the unplanted areas and the extent of more mature trees (dark green). Note the large piles of slash piled close to the roads. After this image was taken, more logging took place before the Elephant Hill Fire burned this area in 2017.

     Click image to enlarge
    Compare that image with the photo below. This satellite image was made in 2019, about two years after the Elephant Hill Fire. Note that most of the regrowth in the clearcut has been killed or damaged. Much of the unplanted area of the clearcut has burned (light gray areas). Some of the mature trees that were left around the clearcuts have survived while others were killed by the fire. The slash piles are now ash piles. These features are typical of BC’s biggest wildfires in the Interior.

    Click image to enlarge
    The satellite photography also shows that areas where extensive mechanical thinning had taken place survived the fire in some places but were incinerated in others. Corridor thinning mimics, to some extent, natural fire’s ability to open up a forest stand, but it’s an interim stage that will lead to a clearcut in the not-too-distant future. An extensive east-west belt of such thinning running across the entire pathway of the Elephant Hill Fire north of Loon Lake did not prevent the fire from moving northwards.
    The same mixed fire-survival performance of extensive thinning efforts can be found in satellite photography of the Hanceville Fire.
    (The most current satellite photography can be found at inaturalist.org.)
    The satellite photography shows that slash, left in logged-over areas, was an important factor in the eventual size of the Elephant Hill Fire. Equally evident from the satellite photography is that any plantation regrowth younger than about 20 years has been largely wiped out.
    Satellite photography of the huge areas burned by the Hanceville and Plateau fires of 2017 shows the same general outcomes: vast areas of clearcuts burned clean with the small patches of adjacent, mature forest that had been left between clearcuts moderately to severely damaged.
    The 16 million hectares of BC forest that have been impacted by the beetle infestation, combined with decades of extensive clearcutting of live conifer forests, has created an apocalyptic landscape in BC’s interior forests. Ministry of Forests’ reports on the 2017 and 2018 fires show large areas of the Interior—entire forest districts—where the “cumulative percentage of merchantable forest volume killed since 1999” is “greater than 45 percent.” This description, of course, doesn’t include the loss before 1999.
    The “killing” is the result of the logging of live trees, beetle infestation and wildfires. The result is a vast open area in the Interior that is littered with hundreds of millions of tonnes of tree parts in various stages of decay, all of it potential fuel for wildfires, just waiting for ignition. Although much of this area hasn’t been replanted, that which has been is also, under the right conditions, potent fuel requiring only ignition.

    Flames fuelled by clearcut slash flare outward from the Chutanli Lake Fire, July 30, 2018
    IN BC, THE CAUSE OF IGNITION for every wildfire is determined and recorded by the BC Wildfire Service, and so is each fire’s physical size. These records end up in the National Forestry Database. They show us that between 1990 and 1998, 59 percent of the area burned by wildfires in BC was attributed to fires ignited by lightning. Over the next nine-year period that rose to 81 percent. In the nine-year period ending with 2016, it rose to 85 percent. So lightning has become the overwhelming source of ignition of large wildfires in BC.
    The records also show that while the total area burned as a result of lightning ignition has risen, the actual number of forest fires started by lightning has fallen. Between 1990 and 1998, there were 12,158 fires ignited by lightning. During the next 9-year interval, that fell to 8,837 fires. That was followed by 9,339 fires ignited by lightning in the 9-year interval ending with 2016.
    The growth in the area burned by wildfires ignited by lightning isn’t the result of more lightning strikes hitting the forest—a factor that would be beyond human control.
    Now here’s the most critically important point in this story: Scientific research shows lightning is more likely to start a fire if it hits a harvested area than if it hits a forested area.
    Back in 2009, forest research scientists Meg Krawchuk and Steve Cumming published the results of an 8-year study of lightning ignition in 60,000 square kilometers of boreal forest in Alberta. They found that wildfires started by lightning ignition “increased in landscapes with more area harvested.” Because of the physical nature of the fuel in a “harvested area”—its dryness, smaller size, etc—it is more readily ignited by lightning than the fuel in an undisturbed stand of trees.
    Krawchuk and Cumming also noted: “In addition to the fine fuels and slash remaining after forest harvest, post-disturbance regeneration might also contribute to flammability.”
    The forest-industrial complex has, it would seem, created an immense area in the Interior of BC that is a crude incendiary device—like a Molotov cocktail—that only needs the right conditions of temperature, humidity and a bolt of lightning to burst into flames.
    The satellite imagery of BC’s recent big fires certainly confirms Krawchuk’s and Cumming’s speculation about the flammability of regrowth in clearcuts. In BC’s dry Interior forests, those plantations act like kindling and, in areas where fires burned in 2017, there’s now little remaining of 20 to 25 years of a build-up of kindling—or, as the forest-industrial complex calls it: “The Forests for Tomorrow.”
    Let me summarize.
    First, we know from National Forestry Database records that lightning strikes are igniting fewer fires, but the fires ignited by lightning are becoming larger.
    Second, we know from Ministry of Forests records and satellite photography that the cumulative area of harvested forest in BC’s Interior has grown very significantly in the last 20 years, and in many areas exceeds the amount of forested land.
    Third, we know that the big fires in BC’s Interior in 2017 all involved heavily harvested areas where either beetle-killed or live trees had been removed.
    Last, scientists have found that the more a landscape is harvested, the more lighting ignition occurs, and that’s because harvested areas have fuel on the ground that is more ignitable than standing forest.
    These facts strongly suggest that it’s the growing expanse of fuel-laden clearcuts that are producing larger fires.
    Climate change is no doubt making the fuel drier and more ignitable, and perhaps adding a little strength to winds that fan the fires. But it’s also possible that vast areas of clearcuts are creating those same effects all by themselves. Removal of the tree canopy allows the sun to heat the forest floor more readily, which reduces humidity and raises temperature. Removal of trees allows wind speed at forest-floor level to be higher in clearcuts than would be the case in an expanse of mature forest. Leaving 40 to 60 percent of the biomass of the forest in a clearcut creates a huge fuel load that is apparently readily ignitable by lightning and easily fanned by wind.
    Focus has obtained numerous photographs taken from fire-spotter aircraft, including those used in this story, that depict fires that apparently started in clearcuts, or clearcuts engulfed in flames. So there’s good evidence on the ground that this is happening. But this version of what’s happening is definitely not the narrative that is coming from the scientists whose role it is to keep timber flowing from the forests to the mills.
    The forest-industrial complex is pointing its collective finger at drier conditions created by climate change, and too dense fuel in the forest as a result of fire suppression. Its favoured solution appears to be to go into the forest and remove more trees.
    It’s possible that the forest-industrial complex is suffering from the cognitive bias known as the law of the instrument: Give a man a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.
    CONSIDER THE MAGNITUDE OF THE PROBLEM: In 1997, BC’s 60 million hectares of forests were able to sequester the equivalent of 103 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Wildfires were emitting an average of 6 megatonnes each year.
    Twenty-three years latter, BC still has 60 million hectares of potential forestland, but has lost those 103 megatonnes of sequestration capacity. Wildfires are now emitting, on average, 58 megatonnes per year.
    Those two changes amount to a net increase of 155 megatonnes per year in emissions related to our provincial forests. That doesn’t include the 88 megatonnes of emissions that we must attribute to the premature decay of wood that will result from harvesting trees for wood products each year.
    The prognosis is bad. Going in the same direction, a further increase in the industrial use of forests by mining them for bio-energy will, if the past is any predictor of the future, just make things worse.
    As I pointed out last edition, the lowest-hanging fruit for BC in mitigating the damage being done to climate stability by its forestry practices is to end the export of raw logs, most of which are cut from coastal forests. If the Province banned raw log exports and reduced the annual allowable cut by 6.5 million cubic metres, 11 megatonnes of annual carbon emissions would be eliminated.
    We previously estimated that would impact 1,650 jobs. In a future low-carbon economy (assuming that’s where we are going), there would be no possible justification for allowing 1,650 jobs to produce 11 megatonnes of net emissions. Instead, the forest-industrial complex needs to start redirecting resources to jobs that don’t destroy forests. It needs to reinvent itself into an agency that can bring the forest back to its former health and capabilities.
    As it ponders its future, perhaps the forest-industrial complex ought to take to heart the words of Aldo Leopold, the American author, philosopher, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist, and environmentalist: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
    David Broadland is the publisher of Focus. He is working with a group of scientists, journalists and citizens to explore the potential for conserving selected BC forests for carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation and short-distance tourism potential. He welcomes your feedback.

    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. 

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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?


    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?

    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

    James Steidle
    Replanting pine monocrops and spraying and brushing the fire-resistant deciduous is the equivalent of draining a patient of blood to cure an infection.

    This almost-pure lodgepole pine plantation, partly the result of spraying glyphosate, might look healthy, but is less resilient to the impacts of climate change—including more forest fires and pine beetles.
    IF YOU ATTENDED the Council of Forest Industries conference in Prince George last week, you would have seen a lunatic outside with a couple signs.
    That lunatic was me and one of the signs said “broadleaf burn less.”
    Now I say lunatic, but maybe you haven’t heard the spiel about our broadleaf trees before - the aspen, birch and cottonwood.  Maybe all you’ve ever heard is that these are the “weed trees.” They aren’t the “money trees.”
    If that’s all we’ve heard, I could partially agree. It would be sheer lunacy to want to flip this cash-crop reality on its head with no concern for the industry or jobs that depend on it.
    But flip it we must.
    And I don’t even need to provide a reason that the industry isn’t already well aware of: pine beetles and forest fire.
    It’s all we’ve been hearing about. David Eby talked about it. Bruce Ralston talked about. All the industry analysts talked about it. These two scourges have destroyed the timber supply, we are told, and for this reason our already decimated forest sector must suffer more.  Yet despite the sure-footed conviction of what ails us, industry and government apparently have no concept of how to remedy it.
    To the contrary, the state of reforestation is the equivalent of 19th century quack medicine. Replanting pine monocrops and spraying and brushing the fire-resistant deciduous is the equivalent of draining a patient of blood to cure an infection.
    That’s exactly what we are doing.
    If fire and pine beetles are the problem, we are doing everything within our powers to make this worse!
    We are growing denser, more pure forests of pine than we had before!
    Now this may come as news, but one of the greatest fire fighters on the landscape is our aspen forests.
    There’s a myth that is floating around in forestry circles. I heard Minister Nathan Cullen say it and I’ve heard senior ministry bureaucrats say it—that aspen isn’t stopping forest fires anymore because of climate change.  This is sheer and complete nonsense.
    A pure aspen patch, with no conifer, with healthy trees, and with leaves on them, will not sustain crown fires, even in the most extreme fire conditions. Pine are exponentially more flammable. Those are indisputable facts.

    A forest fire burned through this pine plantation but was stopped cold by a grove of aspen. Deciduous stands make forests much more fireproof, but they have little commercial value. So logging companies want to use glyphosate spray to get rid of deciduous growth so more-profitable conifers can be planted.
    Diverse landscapes could also help reduce pests.  Monoculture landscapes allow pests to rip through.  We should know this already. Break it up with some different species, and the pine beetle or whatever else has a harder time to spread.
    There are other reasons for more aspen.  They support exponentially more moose, more cattle on public rangeland, more biodiversity, and they sequester more carbon and absorb less sunlight because of their higher albedo. They also have economic uses, as almost all OSB panel is made from broadleaf.
    We need more broadleaf on the landscape and we need it now.
    James Steidle is a Prince George writer.
    This story was originally published in the Prince George Citizen. Learn more about the spraying of glyphosate in BC forests at Stop The Spray BC.

  • Create New...