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Evan Saugstad: Will we ever learn? Managing our trees and forests

We do need to get smarter, and, in many cases, meaner with how we regulate fire, trees and our environment
Lytton, B.C.

saugstadFor the second time in just under 100 years, the community of Lytton has burned. Sad, tragic, and our hearts go out to all those who lost their homes, business and, for some, their lives. Same for those now being threatened by numerous other fires across our Province.

Sad, but in truth and reality, wildfires in our communities are part of our history, and inevitable in our future. Along with regular fire updates are the usual stories about this being our the new normal and how climate change is responsible, that these fires are somehow someone else’s fault, that we must blame others for our tragedies, that government is not doing enough, that industrial forestry should be held to account for what they have done to our forests, that fire wasn’t an issue before colonization, and so on and so on. Alternate viewpoints are predicable, as nothing like an eager news media to report from the disgruntled to add to the human touch.

When this summer ends and fires give way to snow, we will see calls for government to conduct another fire review, just like the last time, and then after months of work and at great expense, the same announcements will be made once again. Government will promise to do more, to spend more, and that they genuinely care and believe about rural people and their safety from wildfire.

Problem is that humans can only solve part of the problem, the rest we must learn to live with. We, as people and communities, need to understand that despite all our best efforts, when Mother Nature says it is time to burn, she will get her way and the unfortunate will pay the price.

Already there are more vigorous calls to eliminate fossil fuels, as if that will really make any difference in whether our forests burn or not. We could ban every internal combustible engine and gas furnace in Canada, and all walk or ride a bike or horse, but all that would do is let next summers fires get bigger. Increased temperatures only mean the risk increases and does not mean that wildfire goes away.

We could ban industrial forestry and let the trees get bigger and older so that when they eventually burn they burn hotter and quicker. That won’t change much either.

We could double, or quadruple our wildfire fighting forces and that would only mean we douse more fires when they are small, but in the end, we would still see some fires do their own thing when circumstances dictate, when numbers and intensity overwhelm our ability to respond.

So, what is the answer? Is there even one? Yes, and it is called get used to fire as being part of our environment. Wildfire always has and always will be part of our lives, despite what the climate change activists preach, or how government responds. If we wish to live in the hottest and driest parts of the province, or carve out a homestead in the middle of the boreal forest, wildfire risk is real and given time, will happen.

Our biggest problem is that we love our trees, no matter that they are responsible for our greatest wildfires. We fight like hell when someone wishes to cut trees down adjacent to our communities. Local governments make regulations that their residents cannot remove trees unless approved. We are allowed/encouraged to plant and irrigate trees for part of the year to ensure they grow big and tall, then when the fire danger is greatest, along come water restrictions to ensure they dry out and become ready to burn.

Some give rebates to plant more trees, and not always the ones that are most fire resistant. We refuse to enforce bylaws requiring private property owners to keep yards clean and free of debris, to prune trees so no branches reach ground level, or that one must irrigate their lands and mow their grass to ensure no fire can burn. As a forest-dependent province, it would be heresy to require new home be built of fireproof materials.

Despite the obstacles, we do need to get smarter and, in many cases, meaner with how we regulate fire, trees and our environment. 

Ever looked at the late 1800s photos of the Lytton area, or Okanagan? Not many trees in those photos and for good reasons. Fires used to be a regular part of their lifecycle and we got rid of that. Hot and the dry weather used to prevent many trees from growing, but irrigation systems fixed that. Now we have more trees than ever growing where they historically never used to. 

For centuries people used fire to modify the forests where we lived. Some used fire for hunting by attracting more animals to the new and nutritious growth, others to create dead wood for fuel, and others for their own safety.

We also used to harvest forests in and adjacent to our communities, but not so much anymore. Today we are infatuated with having trees everywhere, as if they are some panaceas to life, and to think Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants us to plant even more.

Try doing a prescribed burn that puts smoke into a community and see what happens. Heaven forbid, the howl and lawsuits that would come from those with little tolerance for smoke or inconvenience. Or should a fire become a bit overachieving, that shack in the back forty instantly becomes a million-dollar payout.

No way around it, we have little desire to manage trees and forests in and around our communities, and even less willingness to spend the millions and millions of taxpayer dollars to keep our forests and communities “fireproof.”If we wish to have less fire, then we need to have fewer trees. Trees are not needed everywhere, are not always good for our lives and trees always represent a threat and danger.

And closer to home, and for all our rural subdivisions who so liked to carve their homes into what was once a forest, remember the adage: every tree will eventually fall, only a matter of time, and that is 100% certain.

Just takes a good storm to make things happen.

Evan Saugstad lives and writes in Fort St. John.

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