Putting a lid on tomorrow’s wildfires

A woman wearing a face mask walks as smoke from wildfires in neighbouring Washington state shrouds False Creek in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada September 14, 2020. PHOTO BY JENNIFER GAUTHIER /REUTERS

Like so many in our province, I’ve spent the last week indoors, avoiding the thick smoke that continues to afflict our communities. These persistent smoky conditions are a reminder of British Columbia’s own vulnerability to wildfire, and that the absence of catastrophic fires this year is not due to any special foresight or planning, but merely a product of chance.  

Like the forests of the western United States, a legacy of fire exclusion and rising temperatures due to climate change is creating an increasingly volatile situation in B.C.’s forests. The devastating fire seasons we experienced in 2017 and 2018 will continue to plague our forests and communities unless we intervene to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—from fires and fossil fuels alike—and proactively manage these ecosystems. 

B.C.’s newly released COVID recovery package rightly earmarks $20 million to wildfire prevention. In distributing these funds, however, the province must prioritize wildfire risk reduction activities that not only create jobs in rural communities but also increase our forests’ resilience to climate change and maximize their carbon uptake. Forests cover almost two-thirds of B.C., and are potentially one of our strongest assets in combatting climate change, provided we don’t lose them to severe wildfire.

Across B.C., a century of fire suppression has contributed to a buildup of vegetation, stocking forests with fuel for future fires. In the absence of regularly occurring fire, like those intentionally set by Indigenous Peoples before colonization or those ignited by lightning, our landscapes have lost the patchiness that limited fire spread. Landscapes that previously supported a mosaic of forests of many ages and species, grasslands and shrublands now include sprawling swaths of continuous, predominantly coniferous forest, able to carry fire rapidly across thousands of hectares. In addition, droughts, mountain pine beetle and other insects, have taken aim at many of B.C.’s forests, leaving whole stands of dead and flammable trees in their wake. And, on top of all of that, climate change has dried out these uniform and fuel-laden landscapes, priming them for large, severe and difficult to control wildfires. 

However, we can still intervene and reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic wildfire future. Under a PICS-funded projected called Wildfire and Carbon, scientists at the Canadian Forest Service, the US Forest Service, the University of British Columbia and PICS, are together researching ways to address this problem by evaluating strategies like prescribed burns, mechanical extraction of vegetation, encouraging broadleaved species that alter fire behaviour, and even the creation of protective fire breaks around at-risk communities. 

We are also working to understand which B.C. forest and ecosystems are most at risk from wildfire to maximize the impact of wildfire prevention efforts. For instance, what is the wildfire risk of B.C.’s coastal rainforests compared to its sub-boreal or interior woodlands, and where are efforts best targeted?  Although the delivery of risk reduction and climate mitigation strategies is expensive and labour intensive, the costs of inaction to our communities, health and environment are far greater. 

Our research envisions a world in which fuel removal from overstocked forests is paired with new uses for biomass and fibre such as bioplastics and wood products for mass timber buildings. Such synergies could not only create jobs in rural and First Nation communities and support a fair economic recovery from the current pandemic, but may also reduce wildfire risk and carbon emissions and enhance the capacity of forests to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Year after year, we have experienced the devastating impact of climate fueled wildfires, and we must not wait for B.C.’s next catastrophic fire season to take bold action. Money for wildfire risk reduction is an important part of B.C.’s recovery package and targeted science can help maximize the effectiveness of such investments–to protect the climate, B.C.’s forests and our communities. 

Read this article in the Vancouver Sun.

Dr. Carly Phillips is a researcher-in-residence with the PICS Wildfire and Carbon project, with expertise on wildfires, carbon cycling and climate mitigation.