The way the BC forest sector is these days, the province’s main export product this summer was likely smoke. According to US weather maps,
on some days soot and particulate matter from our Interior wildfires crossed the Cordillera with the jet stream, travelling as far east as the Dakotas.
Forestry Practices as Important as Wildfire Fighting
The way the BC forest sector is these days, the province's main export product this summer was likely smoke. According to US weather maps, on some days soot and particulate matter from our Interior wildfires crossed the Cordillera with the jet stream, travelling as far east as the Dakotas. On other days it drifted south to Oregon and then east up to Wyoming. And that was just what was visible.
By early September, the province's wildfires had rapidly-oxidized 5 million bone dry tonnes of forest biomass into approximately 90 million tonnes CO2e of assorted greenhouse gases - a rate roughly three times our ten-year average and equivalent to the annual pollution of 17 million passenger cars - nine times as many as there are in BC. To put that in the timber values lost category, that is 6 million cubic metres of wood totaling $31-million in lost stumpage. Adding to that loss is the direct firefighting expense of $320 million, which was spent as of mid-September, when approximately 400 fires were still burning. If we assume that half the fires have occurred on the timber harvest land base, then it will require 126 million seedlings to promptly plant over 100,000 hectares at a cost of $156 million. The provincial carbon tax on the wildfire emissions would be $1.2 billion.
Back in 2003, I attended that year's US Western Governors' Forest Health Summit in Missoula, Montana. Considering that forest health problems don't stop at the border, it was remarkable that I was the only Canadian there among the 300 foresters, county and state politicians, environmentalists, firefighters, and general citizens. As a result, I think many in our BC political and policy community missed a critical message regarding forestry and fire, which we need to start putting into practice in this province.
The then US Forest Service Chief Forester, Dale Bosworth, remarked that the vast majority (8%) of wildfires are successfully fought, but that remaining small number of unmanageable fires were responsible for almost 80% of the damage. "We can't fight these fires," he admitted. They were simply too big, too intense, and too dangerous. "The only thing we can do to prevent these kinds of fires is to take the heat out of the woods." By that he meant that government, in order to protect its forests, its treasury, and its citizens, had to manage these forests through strategic fuel management before they burned. Otherwise they would continue to see massive catastrophic fires across the country.
Many of the conditions that led Bosworth to this conclusion are present in BC today. Our forests are as ingrown as those in the US. We have the beetle plague and assorted blights, and our human habitat continues to encroach on forests that are determined to burn. This year we likely set a BC record for evacuations and evacuation orders. We will probably face more years like 2009 soon; years in which there will be tougher decisions about the risks we take to protect communities and infrastructure as well as what we spend in dollars and, unfortunately, possibly lives.
It would seem prudent to begin a major program in this province to reduce the wildfire threat that is gaining strength across the landscape. That program would "take the heat out of the woods" through fuel management and silviculture treatments not only in the wildland urban interface, but across the broad landscape, particularly where the mountain pine beetle assault has been most concentrated. In this context, active forestry crews doing ecosystem restoration work would be as critical as fire suppression crews in managing the wildfires of the future. Recently the BC government has dedicated a vastly expanded budget, in the hundreds of millions, to fight future forest fires. It would be just as wise to set a percentage of this amount aside to implement proactive ecosystem restoration and fuel management work to reduce the severity, intensity, and scale of the wildfire threat our woods increasingly pose to the province.