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As wildfires burn, expert says B.C. needs to do more to manage fuel

Last Updated Aug 16, 2018 at 1:43 pm PST

(BC Wildfire Service/Twitter)

An expert says the province needs to do more to manage fuels as BC continues to deal with raging wildfires

A day after BC declared a state of emergency due to wildfires, an expert says it needs to do more to mitigate risk

If the province doesn't do more, one expert says BC could see more wildfire season like this year's in the future

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Just one day after the B.C. government declared a province-wide state of emergency, we’re learning this is one of the worst wildfire seasons on record.

There are a number of things going on, from climate change to a buildup of fuel in forests around the province.

“We have to deal with the fuel load because our only other weapon is fire control activities, and we’re getting close to our limit in our ability as people to deal with that,” David Andison with UBC’s Department of Forest Management Resources.

While the area burnt so far in 2018 is much smaller than what was destroyed by raging blazes last year, Andison says the surprise this year is the sheer number of fires burning.

“I’m sure it’s more than average over the last few decades, but it’s the number of fires which reflects the fact that there is fire activity in all parts of the province, which is a new twist,” he explains.

If things don’t change, Andison says we’ll see even more wildfire seasons like this one in the future, given the fact that there is a lot of fuel to burn across the province combined with longer fire seasons and more severe conditions.

B.C. needs younger, lower density forests: expert

The province has been good at fire control, Andison explains, but he admits B.C. is lagging “far behind” on fuel management.

“There has to be a dedicated, focused effort to deal with that or else that’s not going to go away. I would say we’re not even on the positive side of that equation, even over the efforts that have been done over the last few years.”

It’s going to take even more time and effort to get to where B.C. needs to be, Andison admits, saying it could potentially take as long as 10 to 20 years before British Columbia significantly reduces the fire threat.

“Having said that, we can start to head in the right direction over the next few years because there are areas where we know there’s a lot of fuel build up, and we know the wildfire interface is going to be important so we can focus on those areas first.”

Fires in forested and backcountry areas wouldn’t be anything unusual, say, 100 to 200 years ago since Andison says the ecosystems are all those that are used to burning, historically.

However, it is unusual now because communities are used to “successful fire control”.

“The amount of fuel that has built up is unprecedented now,” he tells NEWS 1130. “It’s far beyond historic range… for example, last year, out of the approximately 1.2 million hectares that burned, 75 per cent of it was an older forest. Now that 75 per cent old forest shouldn’t be there.”

He points to that being one of the reason some blazes are so hard to control.

By leaving these types of areas along, Andison says we are in some sense exposing ourselves to more risk.

“We have to start to deal with the other side of the equation and that means those fuel loads have to come down across the landscape, not just around communities… we have to do what we call ‘cooling it off.'”

That means introducing younger, lower density forests, with different species. Andison says this is the way nature operated for centuries before us, and that people have created these areas that are so hard to control.

Fuel management options

Clearing fuel comes with several options. One, Andison explains, involves “letting fires go,” which he understands does already happen. However, as population and communities grow, that becomes more of a challenge.

The other options, he says, include using prescribed burns and even mechanical means.

“Mechanical means could be anything from the fire smarting activities that I know some communities have been talking about and undertaken, but we’ve also got forest management. We have a large amount of forest harvesting activity out there that we could be taking advantage of in a more strategic way.”

And it doesn’t need to look any different than it does now, he adds, citing companies that harvest.

“If you remove the fuel infront of that fire, you remove the ability of that fire to spread considerably across the landscape.”

B.C.’s 2017 season saw 1,346 wildfires burn more than 1.2 million hectares across the province. It broke the previous record set in 1958.

A provincial state of emergency was in effect for just more than two months while wildfires displaced tens of thousands of people.

The state of emergency — which was the longest in the history of B.C. — was lifted on September 15th.