Counting wildfire’s carbon

The immediate effects of wildfires in British Columbia are obvious and extreme: trees incinerated, lives, homes and business endangered or destroyed, skies fouled with wood smoke.

But the long-term consequences of such fires relating to climate change are no less severe: the release of immense amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

That’s why PICS-funded researchers are doing their part to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires.

The Wildfire and Carbon Project team — including lead author Carolyn Smyth, co-investigator and a research scientist with Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Services — recently had its paper titled Development of a prototype modeling system to estimate the GHG mitigation potential of forest and wildfire management published in the journal MethodsX.

As B.C. has experienced the three worst fire seasons in its history in 2017, 2018 and 2021 — and anticipates more severe blazes and climate impacts in the future — a key priority in carbon research is to identify regional solutions for wildfire and forest management.

Lead author Carolyn Smyth
Lead author Carolyn Smyth

In Development of a prototype…, the PICS researchers have evolved an established, internationally recognized model for carbon dynamics to now include wildfires of different severities, in response to forest stand characteristics and wildfire history.

To estimate the net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the model’s considerations include emissions from forest ecosystems and harvested wood products, and also takes into account when wood products or bioenergy are used in place of fossil fuels-based materials and energy.

“We have very high emissions from wildfires and they obviously cause negative health impacts for smoke, they close businesses, they cause evacuations,” says Smyth, whose research includes assessment of climate change mitigation options for the forest sector as well as ecosystem modelling and carbon accounting for managed forests in Canada. “So, the question we’re asking is how can we prevent this? How can we mitigate wildfire emissions? How can we make our forests healthier?

“The idea is to try to reduce wildfire emissions and figure out ways we can manage forests and manage for wildfires in order to reduce emissions in the future,” she adds, “and also look at ways we can use some of the wood… for products and energy to meet society’s demands.

“We’re not trying to get rid of all fire — fire really is a part of natural ecosystems,” Smyth notes. “But these really intense fires, where most of the forest is killed in the fire, that’s what we’re trying to reduce.”

A prescribed burn helps prevent wildfire.
Controlled debris burns can help prevent wildfire and the immense amounts of greenhouse gas emissions it can produce. Photo by stockstudioX.

Aiming to provide a path for studying mitigation and adaption, the team — which also includes Max Fellows, Werner Kurz, Carly Phillips, Sheng Xie and Tristan Zaborniak — believes researchers using its model will, for example, be able to estimate emissions based on the type of trees and wildfire history of a given area.

The template will also allow for study of other forestry management practices such as thinning and prescribed burning meant to reduce fuel loads for potential fires, and whether planting a greater quantity of hardwoods changes severity of wildfires.

If researchers using the PICS team’s prototype modelling system can find a way to control the carbon emitted by wildfires, the effects could be profound, says Phillips, Researcher in Residence with the Wildfire and Carbon Project. She notes that GHG emissions from the 2017/18 fires were triple those from all other sectors combined in B.C.

Phillips also says Canada is at the leading edge of carbon budget modelling and its models are used in forestry sectors around the world.

According to Smyth, the best way to address an issue that affects forests — as well as people, communities and businesses — all over the globe is to “provide a framework to study what methods work best at the local level, so that knowledge can be shared and put into action.”

Read more about the revised model in MethodsX.