Our investigation found the ministry of forests with its collective head in the sand and the logging industry feeding on the huge public expenditure of money used to fight the fires.
The Doctor Creek fire, the largest in the province in 2020. This BC Wildfire Service photo shows all three fuels BC’s forest fires are burning: Mature forest, plantations and clearcuts.
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY LARGE, OUT-OF-CONTROL FIRES burning in BC’s Interior this summer? It’s partly the result of extreme hot weather made worse by climate change, but testimony provided to an Oregon court in 2019 revealed that clearcut logging, followed by replanting, creates fuel conditions that make fires easier to ignite and harder to control. These effects persist for decades. Since the area being logged each year in the Interior has more than doubled since the 1970s, southern BC has become a Molotov cocktail of clearcuts and young plantations ready to explode into flames with the first lightning strikes of summer.
The Oregon testimony arose because a land conservation organization, Oregon Wild, sued the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for failing to disclose the extent to which logging on public land near an Oregon community would raise forest fire hazard. The Oregon case included written testimony from a BLM fuels specialist, provided under oath, that stated that logging and plantations increase forest fire hazard. Those two fuel conditions make a fire easier to ignite and harder to control.
Here’s the relevant testimony by the BLM fuels specialist (we quote from the court judgment record): “The change from a ‘mature’ to an ‘early successional’ stand structural stage would change the associated stand-level hazard from low to moderate/high. The stands would go from a timber model to a slash fuel model with higher predicted flame length, fire duration, and intensity and decreased ability to control a fire, with the greatest risk of a fire start during the first 5 years following harvest. Over the next 10 to 40 years, stands would transition through stages associated with high stand-level fire hazard rating and go from a slash fuel to a brush fuel type, which are more volatile and susceptible to high fire-caused mortality rates. These potential fires would have high flame lengths, rates of spread, and intensity and would be difficult to initially attack and control. Overall fire hazard would increase for 5 to 20 years following planting, then drop from high to moderate after the next treatment.”
Logging slash in an Interior clearcut (Photo by Sean O’Rourke/Conservation North)
Fire hazard, as referred to in the testimony, isn’t quite what I thought it was, so I should outline the meaning of that term for you. A “fire hazard rating” is an assessment of the fuel comprised of living and dead vegetation in an area—a mature forest or a clearcut or a plantation, for example. The assessment estimates the ease with which a fire can be ignited, and, once ignited, the fire’s resistance to human control. If a fire ignites in a high hazard area, or encounters such an area, it can spread more easily than in mature forest.
Fire hazard is independent of weather-related factors like moisture content, humidity, temperature or wind speed—all of which are influenced by climate change. Instead, hazard is all about fuels: the volume, type, condition, arrangement, and location that determines the degree of ease of ignition and the resistance to control. The distinction between climate effects and fuel effects is necessary to make for one important reason. Although the forests ministry can’t directly control climate change, it does have full control of how much of BC’s publicly owned forests are converted from a low fire hazard rating to a medium/high hazard rating each year. Since the early 1970s the ministry has ramped up the production of clearcuts and plantations—and, as a consequence, the fire hazard.
The growing prevalence of clearcuts and plantations
The ministry of forests’ record of the extent of logging on publicly owned land shows there has been a large increase over the last 50 years. In the first five years of the 1970s, an average of 105,000 hectares of Crown land was being cut each year. In the 5-year period ending with 2018, that had risen to 240,000 hectares each year, a 230 percent increase.
Data crunching by David Leversee, based on the ministry of forests’ RESULTS Openings and Consolidated Cutblocks.
Over the past 40 years, about 8.5 million hectares of BC’s publicly owned forest have been logged. Based on the BLM fuel specialist’s testimony that the fire hazard associated with a plantation would be higher than the mature forest it replaced for up to 40 years, we can project that as much as 8.5 million hectares of BC now have an elevated level of fire hazard as a consequence of logging and replanting. That means 8.5 million hectares where fires will ignite more easily than mature forest, and 8.5 million hectares where fire will be harder to control. That number doesn’t include logging on private land.
It’s that growing prevalence of clearcuts and plantations that’s worrisome. Lightning strikes in those areas will be more likely to ignite and the resultant fires will be more difficult to control than in mature forest. Lightning is the most common cause of forest fires in BC. Obviously, then, if there’s more land where fires are easier to ignite, more fires will occur. If fires are initially more difficult to control, they are more likely to grow. And once a fire grows large enough to start encountering multiple areas of higher-hazard fuels—like clearcuts and plantations—the fire becomes more and more difficult to control. If the area of the province that’s subject to this higher fire hazard is growing—and it is—then larger fires will become more numerous. That’s exactly what we are seeing this summer.
One method of judging the prevalence of clearcuts and plantations is to view satellite imagery of Crown land. I highly recommend this to anyone skeptical about the extent to which publicly owned forests have been converted to higher fire hazard clearcuts and plantations across BC. Below is a satellite image of part of the area involved in the Flat Lake Fire:
Satellite images show a lot of deceptively green areas. Unless you have been trained to interpret aerial imagery, it can be difficult to know what you are looking at. Many of the green areas in the image above are high-hazard plantations, many of which have now been burned.
A better picture of the prevalence of clearcuts and plantations involved in the fires can be obtained by superimposing the ministry of forests’ fire perimeters onto the ministry’s record of logging in these areas. We’ve done that in the images below of four perimeters of 2021’s largest fires, shown as black lines. Past logging is indicated by the red-shaded areas. Each fire’s point of ignition is indicated by a bright red dot. The white areas are remaining primary forest or rangeland. Protected areas, like provincial parks, are shaded green. In each case you will notice that the area of past logging overwhelms the landscape.
The August 6 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.
August 8 perimeter of the Sparks Lake Fire. On its west side, the fire burned to the edge of the massive 2017 Elephant Hill Fire, which burned through the logging indicated on the left side of the image above.
August 8 perimeter of the Tremont Creek Fire southeast of Cache Creek.
The August 8 perimeter of the White Rock Fire. The ministry of forests’ record of logging in the RESULTS Openings database misses some of the logging that has occurred. The area within the fire perimeter near Okanagan Lake (right side) has actually been heavily logged.
The ministry’s records show that several of BC’s largest fires this summer were ignited in a clearcut or plantation and then quickly grew out of control. The White Rock Lake Fire ignited in an area of logging that was replanted in 2007. The Flat Lake Fire started when lighting struck a clearcut that was logged in 2015. The Sparks Lake Fire began beside a large area logged in the mid-1980s. The Octopus Creek Fire was ignited by lightning in an area logged in 2005 and planted in 2006. The Young Lake Fire was started by lightning in a clearcut logged in 2006 and replanted twice, in 2012 and 2015. And so on. Every one of the big fires in the southern Interior, no matter how they started, consumed thousands of hectares of clearcuts and plantations. The widespread conversion of BC forests from areas of low fire hazard to medium-high hazard by the logging industry is clearly playing a decisive role in the size of forest fires.
Patrick Byrne, district manager of the 100-Mile-House Natural Resource District, declined to answer questions about the role clearcuts and plantations are playing in the Flat Lake Fire, but Byrne did note that “the fires burn quite nicely through plantations.”
The aggressive behaviour of fires fuelled by clearcut logging slash and plantations puts firefighters in greater danger. BC Wildfire Service fire incident reports filed from the field often note extreme fire behaviour related to the fuel loading in clearcuts. A report from a fire in 2018 warned: “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.” Spotting refers to embers travelling downwind and starting new fires. Many incident reports from different fires make similar observations about the impact of the fuel in clearcuts on fire behaviour.
A fire whirl in a clearcut fire (Photo by BC Wildfire Service)
The impact of clearcut logging on fires will last a very long time
Fire hazard rating is, by definition, independent of the moisture content in fuel. Yet the dryness of a clearcut, plantation or area of mature forest has a large influence on the speed with which fire can spread. Clearcutting exposes the land to the full strength of the sun, evaporating ground moisture and lowering humidity, important factors driving increased fire size and severity.
Clearcuts also allow drying winds and higher temperatures to more easily penetrate the edges of adjacent forest. BC forester Herb Hammond contends that “clearcuts are clear culprits for heating up and drying out not only the immediate area where they occur, but also the surrounding landscape. They change local and regional weather patterns, and turn former heterogeneous, ecologically resilient stands and landscapes into homogeneous, ecologically vulnerable stands and landscapes. Their vulnerability is well documented in both the rise of insect epidemics, which clearcuts are allegedly meant to suppress, along with wildfire risk.”
BC Forester Herb Hammond
The drier conditions caused by the widespread use of clearcut logging in BC will persist far longer than the BLM fuel specialist’s predicted “10 to 40 years” of higher fire hazard, as Hammond explains:
“Forests, particularly as they grow older, conserve water in large part due to complex, multi-layer canopies, and overall composition and structure that are all geared to slowing the movement of water through the forest, while filtering and storing water at the same time. Clearcuts, on the other hand, expose the land to rapid water loss. After a clearcut in montane Interior forests, 150 to 200 years of natural stand development are necessary to get back to something close to the level of water conservation provided by intact, natural old forests. If one takes into account the development of decayed fallen trees that are needed to store and filter water, that could be doubled to 300 to 400 years. Most of these vital fallen tree structures get destroyed in high-production, mechanized clearcutting.”
The dryness of clearcuts and young plantations is evident to anyone who has walked through one on a hot summer day and then stepped into the shade of adjacent mature forest. The difference in temperature and humidity is startling. That difference can even be measured by satellite imaging using microwaves. The top image below shows clearcuts near the Brenda Creek Fire in the Peachland area on July 16. The image below that shows the relative moisture content on the ground that same day. The dark blue areas contain the most moisture and the red areas are the driest. Yes, those red-yellow-orange areas are all clearcuts.
(Graphics courtesy of David Leversee)
There are several other aspects of how clearcut logging is practiced in BC that have had an impact on fire size. For example, in the Interior, the practice of “managed” forests has evolved to mean managed coniferous forests. Deciduous stands are eradicated, often using glyphosate sprayed from helicopters, so that more commercially valuable coniferous stands can be planted instead. This, too, has made Interior forests more vulnerable to large fires.
James Steidle, forest activist, has campaigned against this practice in the Prince George forest district. Steidle observes: “The conifer-dominated forest type we are actively encouraging is highly flammable, while the broadleaf aspen forest type we are actively eliminating is incredibly fire resistant. With a few caveats, the conclusion is undeniable. According to a 2001 study by Steve Cummings et al, pine forests are 8.4 times more likely to burn compared to aspen forests, based on historical data.”
With fewer stands of fire-resistant deciduous trees to slow down or stop fires, larger fires are inevitable.
Another dubious ministry policy has been “salvage logging” of healthy non-pine forest stands alongside lodgepole pine killed by the Mountain Pine Beetle. Several of the largest fires in the Interior during the last six years have included thousands of hectares of salvage logging. The ministry of forests allowed companies that were awarded salvage logging licences to take not only dead pine, but healthy living trees as well. The ministry’s own records show that only 15 percent of the logging that occurred in BC since 2010 has been dead pine.
Hammond is scathing about the salvage program and its consequences: “For a stand to be eligible for salvage stumpage rates, all that was needed was for the stand to have a lodgepole pine component of 3 percent or more. This led to a massive windfall for logging companies, which clearcut thousands of hectares of diverse, mixed species natural forests, many of them old growth, under the guise of ‘pine beetle salvage.’ These were the precise stands on which ecological recovery would have been centred through natural succession. Instead, the bulk of these areas have been converted to young lodgepole pine forests, as that species was the easiest to naturally regenerate and meet ‘reforestation’ requirements by the timber companies. So, the forest industrial complex have simply set up the forest landscape for both more frequent severe fire, and an even larger beetle outbreak—if the trees escape climate disruption.”
Hammond predicts the relentless removal of primary forest in the Interior will eliminate essential ecological functions of old forest, and that will lead to more pine beetle epidemics, more “salvage logging,” more giant clearcuts and—inevitably—to more large fires: “Mixed species old-growth forests were once randomly scattered throughout the forest landscapes of much of the Interior. These forests were the home to carnivorous beetles who eat herbivorous beetles—like the Mountain Pine Beetle—and also the home for many cavity nesting birds that prey on herbivorous beetles. So, as long as these forests were found throughout the landscape, they served as important agents to keep bark beetle populations in balance. Along with all of the other benefits of old-growth forests and diverse natural landscapes, these benefits have been eradicated by timber-biased ‘forestry’ that increasingly has no place in BC or anywhere in the world.”
Hammond believes the industry and their ministry partners have created a bleak future for BC forests: “The omnipresent danger of fire and ongoing drought, coupled with inhospitable soil and atmospheric moisture and temperature, call into question whether trees in clearcuts will ever grow to merchantable size in many clearcut areas. Indeed, we are already seeing plantation die off, including death by fire. Particularly in the Interior, we may soon begin to see ecosystem shifts, where former forests become degraded shrub ecosystems.”
The growth in fire size is having broad impacts, including physical damage to communities and infrastructure, long periods of pervasive, health-damaging smoke, disruption to local economies, loss of large areas of wildlife habitat and loss of protected areas. The fires, partly a symptom of climate change, will worsen it: burned forests and plantations can’t continue to sequester carbon and the fires are releasing immense quantities of carbon to the atmosphere. Those emissions have doubled every 9 years since 1990, an exponential increase.
Carbon emissions from forest fires are on track to double every 9 years since 1990. The current 9-year period runs until 2026, but 2021’s fires will likely be all that’s needed.
The ministry has its head in the sand
With the forest fire problem growing in size at an alarming rate, you would think the BC ministry of forests would have put significant resources and effort into understanding how the higher fire hazard of clearcuts and plantations is fuelling the growth in fire size. But the ministry appears to be avoiding the issue.
FOCUS filed an FOI for any technical or scientific reports produced for the ministry between 2010 and 2020 that considered the relationship between logging and forest fire frequency, size, behaviour or intensity. Throughout that period, it was clear that the area being burned in BC during long, hot summers was growing rapidly. Had the ministry investigated?
Our FOI request produced a single study (see link at end of story) conducted by the ministry during that period that examined how fire behaviour was affected by man-made changes to forests. The records released show that in 2019, the ministry started the “Fuel Treatment Efficacy Project” to examine how different fuel-reduction treatments, like thinning or broadcast burning, had impacted subsequent forest fire behaviour and fire suppression tactics.
The $50,000 internal study considered 17 forest fires, only one of which was in an area that had been “100 percent logged.” The researchers gave that fire “low priority” for further study. The main finding of study, as indicated in the 7-page report, was that there was “a paucity of examples” where forest fire had interacted with fuel treatments.
Given the high stakes, it’s difficult to understand why the ministry of forests hasn’t examined the impact of logging and plantations on worsening fire behaviour in BC. Fighting those fires is increasingly costly, as I will describe below. Yet, judging by its response to our FOI, the ministry hasn’t lifted a twig to understand what’s happening.
This failure is worrisome, and may stem from the transition of the ministry over the past 30 years from functioning as a regulator of the logging industry to being its primary enabler. It is perhaps unreasonable to expect that an organization that works every day to maximize logging would, at the same time, spend money and effort on digging up evidence that clearcuts and plantations are feeding large forest fires.
Besides, the ministry knows that logging slash raises fire hazard. That’s why it requires logging companies to burn hundreds of thousands of slash piles every year in an attempt to lower the fire hazard that fuel poses.
BC forester John Waters knows, too. In a 5000-word treatise advising his fellow Woodlot Licence tenure holders what they needed to do to reduce fire hazard after their logging, Waters summed it all up: “Decades of wildfire research and examination of large wildfires shows that wildfire spreads most rapidly in areas where there is an abundance of dry, fine fuel or old unburnt piled slash accumulations.”
The ministry is very careful to never explicitly admit the obvious. If lack of fire hazard abatement results in injury, death or property loss, the Province and its industry partners could be held legally responsible for damages. The closest the ministry comes to acknowledging the higher fire hazard caused by logging is contained in its Guide to Fuel Hazard Assessment and Abatement in British Columbia, last updated in 2012.
The Guide states: “In some timber harvesting circumstances, it will be impracticable to reduce fuel loads sufficiently so that potential fire behaviour is not increased relative to pre-harvest conditions.” Given the growing size of forest fires and the huge associated economic and environmental costs, we might ask why it would ever be “impracticable” to reduce fuel loads. Surely it should now be clear to the ministry that if reducing fire hazard would be “impracticable,” then logging should never occur in the first place.
The Guide, of course, has nothing at all to say about reducing the fire hazard posed by plantations, which have, according to the BLM fuels specialist, the highest fire hazard. No worries. The ministry is already solving that problem. According to the ministry’s own records of the area logged and area replanted between 2000 and 2017, 1.2 million more hectares were logged than were planted. Just how bad this problem actually is depends on which ministry record of how much logging has occurred is used: the one made publicly available (below in black), or the one based on the ministry’s best data (red).
Just to be clear, I am not advocating for leaving clearcuts unplanted. I am pointing out that our forests are not in good hands. They are being ransacked, and so is the public purse.
The money whirl: Who benefits economically from forest fires?
The ministry seems to have in place all of the policies needed to make fires worse and few that would mitigate the risk. One result is that fighting forest fires is costing BC taxpayers a lot more. In the 5 years starting with 2010, fire management cost BC $1.02 billion. In the following five years it more than doubled to $2.12 billion.
Indeed, fighting forest fires has become a big business in BC, and much of the economic rewards from that business flow back to the logging industry itself. Of the $2.1 billion spent on fire management by the ministry of forests between 2015 and 2019, just under 70 percent was paid to private companies for services provided in the increasingly difficult battle to contain forest fires. Through an FOI request for records, FOCUS obtained details of payments totalling $1,471,832,630 (see link at end of story for complete list). Fires in 2017 and 2018 accounted for over 70 percent of that cost.
Who benefitted? On the ground, fighting big forest fires requires constructing fire breaks and other measures that involve logging company personnel and equipment. So, paradoxically, a company that logged an area that was later involved in a fire could end up being contracted by the ministry to help fight the fire. Tolko Industries, which has created what are among BC’s largest clearcuts, was paid $4.6 million for work it did during the 2017 and 2018 fire seasons. During the five years covered by the records, there were 150 small companies with the word “Logging” in their company name that received, on average, $200,000 each for fire fighting operations during fire season. Seventy-two company names on the list included “Trucking” and 35 contained “Excavating.” Eighty-two companies provided helicopter services and the top 10 helicopter companies alone were paid $148 million.
The private business at the very top of the money whirl was Conair, a BC-based company that provides fixed-wing air services for fighting forest fires. Over a five-year period Conair was paid $96,466,895.60.
Next on the list were Perimeter Solutions Canada Ltd ($54,703,223.38) and Air Spray (1967) Ltd ($43,670,860.94). Perimeter and Air Spray supply fire retardant and retardant delivery to fires by aircraft. The $100 million spent on those services points to another level of damage that may be occurring as a result of the over-exploitation of BC’s forests. Fire retardants are known to be harmful to aquatic life, especially to stream-type chinook salmon smolts. Many chinook salmon populations in BC are now considered threatened. The growing use of fire retardants to fight BC’s forest fires is just one more threat to the species’ survival.
Even transferring money to the over 8600 entities on the fire-fighting money list was expensive for BC taxpayers. For example, use of a Bank of Montreal Mastercard account cost hapless taxpayers $20,607,365.60.
Since many of the companies that are receiving payments for fighting fires are the same companies that create the higher fire hazard of clearcuts and plantations in the first place, there is, to say the least, an appearance of a conflict of interest.
An air tanker drops a load of fire retardant on a clearcut fire in 2017 (Photo by BC Wildfire Service)
Forget Brazil. BC's per capita rate of forest removal is worse than Bolivia's.
The response to the growing size and cost of fires from those with an economic stake in continuing logging as usual in BC forests all have one thing in common: No one ever suggests reducing the ongoing production of clearcuts and plantations, the inevitable consequences of logging. Quite the opposite, in fact. Industry and government both know that as time goes on and less and less primary forest is available to be cut, to keep volumes up at mills will require even greater areas of clearcuts and plantations to be created. That’s the ministry’s plan, and that promises an even more catastrophic future for BC.
If you’ve come this far in my story, you must be looking for a solution to the mess the mindustry has created. If so, ask yourself these questions: Could the rate at which primary forest is converted to clearcuts and plantations be reduced? Or is the current rate of forest exploitation needed just to meet BC’s own basic need for products derived from forests?
Ministry of forests’ data shows that 80 percent of the value of BC forest products comes from exports, and most of those go to China, the USA and Japan. So BC is cutting far beyond meeting its own needs for wood products. The extreme nature of that over-cut becomes apparent when BC’s rate of forest-cover loss is compared with other states that are, like BC, heavily forested.
Consider Bolivia. It’s the 8th most heavily forested country in the world. It has an area of 1.099 million square kilometres, just slightly larger than BC’s 944,735. When you do the arithmetic, Bolivia’s forest-cover loss from all causes between 2001 and 2019 amounted to .545 hectares per capita. BC lost 1.66 hectares per capita, more than three times Bolivia’s loss.
Yet when we compare per capita income between BC and Bolivia, there’s no question about which country has the greater need to exploit its forests. In 2010, the mid-point of the 20-year period we’re considering, Bolivia’s per capita income was around $1900 per person. BC’s was $41,327. So Bolivia had a vastly greater economic need to exploit its forest resource than BC did. Yet BC’s per capita rate of forest loss was three times as high as Bolivia’s.
Keep in mind, too, that BC’s high per capita GDP had little to do with the forest industry, which in 2010 accounted for only 2.5 percent of BC’s GDP, according to the BC government. By 2019, that had fallen to 1.8 percent.
By the way, if you take the forest-cover loss attributable to the beetle epidemic and forest fires out of BC’s total and compare that to loss from all causes in other countries, BC still has the worst record, as shown below:
Back in the late 1980s, we used to say “BC is the Brazil of the north,” to express our disapproval for what the government and logging industry were doing to BC forests. That’s no longer even remotely appropriate. Now the global forest destruction putdown ought to be, “Bolivia is the British Columbia of the south.” And Brazil? On a per capita basis, Brazilians are forest angels by comparison.
It’s evident that the extreme rate of forest removal in BC that’s fuelling large forest fires has, in turn, been fuelled by the high level of exports. That has been supported by a forests ministry that long ago stopped regulating the industry and now whole-heartedly facilitates extreme logging. Successive BC governments have chosen to go along with this, thinking that somehow this must all be good for the economy, and if it’s good for the economy, that’s all that matters to most politicians. Now that choice is having severe consequences. Unless BC breaks away from converting low-hazard primary forests into higher-hazard clearcuts and plantations to service export markets, our province seems fated to burn increasingly out of control.
This summer, when not monitoring the BC Wildfire Service’s dashboard and otherwise trying to keep cool, David has been watching the drying forest in his coastal backyard with growing alarm.