Opportunity found in the ashes of local and global wildfires

The blanket of smoke that enveloped the lower mainland this summer was a poignant reminder of the exacerbating effects that climate change and human influence have on forest ecology in our province. Countless records were broken — both at home and worldwide — as wildfires were also making headlines in Italy, Croatia, Spain, France and Portugal.

According to the 2017 BC Wildfire Index, compiled by Dr. Lori Daniels, forest ecology professor in UBC’s faculty of forestry, B.C. broke 85 maximum temperature records this summer alone. This is comparable to data from central and southern Italy, reporting a 30 per cent increase in wildfires corresponding to a 30 per cent decrease in rainfall.

Extreme heat and extreme drought were driving conditions. Adding to this were strong winds. “Those winds have fanned the flames, literally,” said Daniels.

This year brought a total of 1,217 wildfires in B.C. some of which are still blazing in Thompson Okanagan, Cariboo and the Chilcotin. Ignition sources range from natural causes to human influences. Lightning striking trees and vegetation ignited 138 fires on July 7, alone.

States of emergency were declared in both B.C. and several regions in Southern Europe in response to wildfire this summer. The state of emergency in B.C. lasted for 69 days.

Efforts to extinguish the fires were orchestrated with internal and external aid — both in B.C. and Europe. European countries rely heavily on neighbouring countries and organizations such as NATO, while B.C. recruited firefighters from other provinces, as far as Quebec, as well as crews from Mexico and New Zealand.

“We brought in experts from all around the world to cover our bases,” said Daniels.

Extinguishing fires is, of course, critical, but Daniels highlights a concept called fire suppression paradox.

“We will not get rid of fire in our ecosystems. It’s a natural process that is enhanced by climate change,” she explained. Fighting fires that are better left to extinguish naturally generates excess fuel, essentially kindling future fires.

On the other side of the coin is what can be regarded as something of a replanting paradox; herein lies a major concern with effectively responding to wildfire.

“People are going to want to see as many trees planted as possible because it seems like such a positive response … and right now in BC we have a large policy to plant trees … because they sequester carbon and it puts us in a positive carbon balance.

“That will work very well in some environments, but again — if we plant the trees back in these very hot, dry environments to their maximum density thinking we are going to … save the environment we are actually creating the next big fire.”

Another concern is the effect wildfire has on economies. In B.C., the timber industry suffered great losses that will take decades to recover.

“With all the trees that have burned — over 1.2 million hectares of forest — we have lost in some areas … ten years’ worth of sustainable forest management and timber. Imagine those small communities in BC whose economies depend on the forest industry,” Daniels said.

The story is different in Europe where timber is not a significant industry. However, archeological sites and popular tourist destinations were forced to close in some areas. During peak season this certainly was a loss to economies already strapped from fighting wildfire.

All this said, Daniels sees an “opportunity in the ashes” from the unprecedented fires that burned around the globe this year.

B.C. and other areas afflicted globally have the opportunity to hit the reset button and develop big picture plans to create more resilient forests and communities. Intrinsic to this, Daniels said, is that “we won’t be able to maximize short term economics. We need to look long term. There’s going to be some trade-offs.”

A key component of bouncing back from wildfires will be having the right people at the table. Daniels stressed the importance of First Nations having a say in “how we are going to recover and be resilient in the future.”

Though many already economically marginalized and non-native communities were impacted, these are First Nations’ traditional territories.

“Given our province’s commitment to reconciliation and repeated … commitments to the United nations convention on indigenous people,” said Daniels. “I think those two things can go hand in hand and we can be world leaders.”