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How can B.C. defend, protect itself against devastating wildfire seasons?

Forestry experts and a B.C. First Nation fire chief are calling for more fuel management, fire smarting and prescribed burns.

In 2017, a First Nation fire chief watched as wildfires caused significant damage to communities in British Columbia.

It was one of the worst wildfire seasons in the province's history; some 1.2 million hectares burned and roughly 65,000 people were evacuated.

Shortly after, Ron Lampreau Jr. with the Simpcw First Nation attempted to bring forward an initiative called the Indigenous initial attack crew. 

“In 2018, I had meetings with BCWS, Emergency Management BC. Everyone really liked the idea to have Indigenous initial attack crews embedded right into BC Wildfire Service, but it never really gained any traction when we started talking about who was going to pay for it,” says Lampreau.

The crews, made up of three to four people, would be positioned in their own First Nation and act as the "boots on the ground." It’s one idea that he and other forestry experts say is needed in B.C. to help prepare people and communities for dangerous wildfire seasons like the one the province is experiencing this year.

Wildfire activity was tamer in 2019 and 2020. Unfortunately, things picked up again in 2021.

"We saw extreme fire behaviour that took a fire that wasn’t a risk to our community and in eight hours it was,” Lampreau says of the Sparks Lake wildfire burning near the Simpcw First Nation. "It did a run of 16 kilometres in one day and basically firefighters are just getting out of the way and letting it do its thing.”

The wildfire, burning west of Kamloops, was discovered on June 28. As of Aug. 27, it's mapped at more than 89,000 hectares and is "being held."

"It was pretty scary and surreal to everybody,” Lampreau tells Glacier Media.

One week in the middle of August, it started raining ash in the middle of the day as the sky turned dark orange. 

"A lot of people were very nervous and have trauma from previous fire seasons,” says Lampreau.

Once again, he brought forward the idea of an all-Indigenous initial attack crew. Last week, the nation signed an agreement with the BC Wildfire Service to bring the idea to life, a first in the province.

“The reason I think it is so important is we had fires burning all around in our territory; we had industry specialists and partners to BC Wildfire Service fighting some of these fires. There was also a gap of fires that they are letting burn because they’re not a high priority to them and our stance was, 'Why not get these fires before they become an emergency or a threat?'” Lampreau says.

Part of his vision for the all-Indigenous crews is that they conduct prescribed burns in the cooler seasons. 

"We do have a big burning campaign and I also think it is really important to build relationships prior to an emergency and that is what this crew would do.” 

WHAT DOES FIRE MITIGATION LOOK LIKE?

Prescribed burns (also known as broadcast burns) are one fire mitigation tactic that a University of British Columbia forestry professor agrees with.

"From an ecological perspective, I think broadcast burns have a very, very important role to play and I am hoping that over the next few years it will be part of our learning to co-exist with fire,” says Dr. Lori Daniels.

She adds B.C. is still tinkering as opposed to being transformative with its changes to how it responds to wildfire seasons. 

"We are in a new era of mega-fires, and it really makes it urgent that we learn to coexist and adapt and begin to think how to co-exist with fire,” she says.

The 2021 fire season places third for total hectares burned over the last 10 years. Coming in first is 2018 (1,354,284 hectares), followed by 2017 (1,216,053 hectares).

“This fire season is what fire seasons are going to look like moving into the future,” says Daniels. 

She suggests a few key things that the province needs to start doing to help mitigate and manage wildfires.

"FireSmart works. People need to be fire smarting their homes. ... They need to make the effort to make sure that their homes and the immediate space around their home is ready for fire,” she says.

Fuel mitigation in and around communities needs to be done, notes Daniels, especially in the vicinity where they are most vulnerable.

"The communities in these fire-prone areas that are doing community wildfire protection plans, resilience plans, putting in these treatments to thin the forest, remove the surface fuels and thin out the forest, that is essential.”

This can be conducted in two ways: you can thin out the forest by pruning or limbing trees or by conducting prescribed burns. This method allows fire retardant to be more effective, explains Daniels.

“We leave behind the big trees resistant to fire, we remove the smaller trees that are readily burned," she says.

Daniels says prescribed burns are being done less in B.C., as some people find it concerning. However, low-intensity surface fires are part of how ecosystems functioned in the past, she says.

Her research team has been working in 10 community forests across the province, one of which is Logan Lake. The Tremont Creek wildfire came just feet from homes and forced the evacuation of roughly 2,000 people. Fortunately, no structures or homes were lost.

“The [fire mitigation] treatments did what they were supposed to do: they helped the fire behaviour become less intense, they reduced it to surface fire instead of crown fire spreading tree top to tree top,” she says. “Those fuel treatments combined with firefighting efforts were successful in Logan lake and I am really grateful."

Daniels says fire mitigation can’t stop there though.

B.C. needs to think about what it's doing on the larger landscape, the forestry expert tells Glacier Media.

“We can’t just have these little doughnuts around town and think that the doughnut is going to save us,” she says. “We have proven this summer that it isn’t enough. There needs to be the back-up at the landscape level. We need to start managing for forest resilience across landscapes.”

Fire Chief Lampreau agrees with her ideas and believes all-Indigenous initial attack crews could fill a need.

"They can do the fire smarting, cross-cultural training with BC Wildfire Service, prescribed burns, fuel reduction programs. I just think that is a really big piece that is missing,” he says. 

In the interim, Lampreau says it's important for people to know how to fire smart their homes. That includes cleaning up debris, cutting the grass, getting rid of fuel areas, having fire-resistant siding and a tin roof. The first five feet around a property needs to be clear of fine fuel combustibles, which includes leaves, pine needles, doormats, patio furniture and shrubbery.

"It’s all important,” he says. “You’re seeing a lot more homes built into the trees and outlining areas of towns and cities and they’re just at risk.”

FROM ONE DISASTER TO THE NEXT

As many communities across the province are focusing on defending themselves against wildfires and looking to rebuilding after devastation, there’s another natural disaster that might be right around the corner. 

Dr. David Scott, a professor at UBCO in Kelowna, says it's quite likely B.C. will see floods and landslides after this wildfire season. 

"The risk we have is severe fire, a lot of fuel getting burned, a lot of temperature going down into the soil, damaging the soil structure and possibly inducing water repellence in the soil. Both of those two factors are setting up the soil for problems if you have large amounts of rain following a wildfire,” he says.

He adds reducing the fuel load could help with making sure wildfires are less severe. 

“Managing the fires means perhaps burning off some of the fuel at a time of year when you can control the fires,” says Scott. “We are going to have to talk about it enough so the public doesn't see every fire as a bad thing and learn to live with a bit of smoke during those prescribed fires, knowing that that is the lesser problem.”

When it comes to flooding and washouts, of concern are locations with steep slopes. Significant rain events also don't help the situation, he says.

Two tactics to help prepare communities for flooding include mulching up trees on-site with machines and sprinkling straw or hay from a helicopter on the burned slope. These methods create a physical barrier and impact the flow of water, explains Scott, noting both can be quite expensive but effective.

CHANGES AHEAD FOR MANAGING WILDFIRES

On Friday, B.C.’s premier announced the province will develop a “12-month-a-year approach” to be better prepared to fight wildfires following the "horrific" 2021 season

In an emailed statement to Glacier Media, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Forest, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development says the government has invested "heavily" in wildfire prevention and preparedness initiatives to help keep British Columbians safe and protect natural resources and infrastructure. 

When questions about what progress has been made since 2017, the ministry says $136 million has been allocated for direct fire costs in the 2021 budget. 

During a tour of Logan Lake Friday, Horgan said the wildfire fight in B.C. has typically been funded largely through contingency — meaning a nominal amount is budgeted for a given year, then overruns for busy fire seasons are paid for by finding money elsewhere in the budget.

He said he wants that to change.

“If we have resources at the front end of the year, the BC Wildfire Service can retain people to assist with FireSmart, can create guards around those interface communities,” he said.

“That’s got to be the way we go forward."

Daniels says change is not happening fast enough.

“We find all sorts of excuses why we can’t do that as fast as we are thinking, or it costs too much … there’s always a reason, but we are paying the price every single summer,” she says.

With a file from Tim Petruk