B.C. has turned its forests into a ticking time bomb: Zeman | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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B.C. has turned its forests into a ticking time bomb: Zeman

Jesse Zeman
Image Credit: Twitter



After record temperatures seared much of the province, this year's fire season got off to an early start and that’s a problem.

Our forests are a ticking time bomb.

While many people will point to climate change to explain recent historically destructive fire seasons, B.C.'s history of fire suppression and archaic forest management has turned our forests into an overstuffed matchbox that grows more dangerous with each passing year.

We've already witnessed tragic losses experienced by the Nlaka'pamux First Nation and town of Lytton. It will only get worse.

Decades of fire suppression have resulted in fuel loading and forest ingrowth, crowding out biodiversity and putting people at risk. By putting out every fire on the landscape, we are creating forests that are bristling with fuel just waiting for a spark.

Much of B.C. is part of an ecosystem where fire naturally occurs every five to 200 years. In the Central Interior, many areas historically burn every five to 30 years. Under the right circumstances, fire is good. Fire is part of a natural process that rejuvenates grasslands, plant communities, and promotes biodiversity.

In much of the Interior, fire is an integral component of functioning and productive habitat for grizzly bears, moose, elk, mule deer, and sheep. Many of these species are currently in decline, with some at record lows, due in part to fire suppression. On Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and in the Fraser Valley, the Garry Oak ecosystem is endangered due largely to fire suppression.

Broadleaf trees are nature's fuel break, slowing and reducing the intensity of fires; they also support biodiversity and provide our moose with food. Unfortunately, B.C.'s outdated forest policies treat broadleaf trees, such as aspen, like weeds to promote the growth of merchantable timber. In parts of B.C., we actually spray broadleaf trees with the herbicide glyphosate to kill them off on a massive scale. The combination of climate change, archaic forest policies and 100-plus years of fire suppression have led to fires that burn hotter and are far less controllable, destroying trees, soils, private property, and putting people's lives and livelihoods at risk.

What we do after a fire is vital. A post-fire landscape left untouched creates a natural fire break; as new plants and trees grow in, the burned trees that we leave standing are critical for moisture retention and temperature regulation in the soil. In as little as a year, many burned areas sound like a symphony, teaming with life from bugs to birds to bears. But our archaic forest policies often do not allow this to happen. Instead, we too often go in and log areas burned by fire as quickly as possible, because burned trees are harder to cut at the mill after a couple of years.

Logging after wildfire often leaves behind a barren landscape, with stunted native plants due to a lack of temperature regulation and moisture retention in the soil. Roads for logging invite invasive weeds. The lack of vegetation combined with roads in logged fires can exacerbate erosion, flooding and sedimentation in our watersheds.

B.C. has been so focused on cutting down and selling trees, it has failed to account for the costs of fire suppression, loss of biodiversity, food security and tourism. Forestry could play a critical role in mitigating the effects of wildfire by reducing fuel loads and thinning forests. But that will require a completely new way of thinking. Until we overhaul forest management, raging wildfires and smoky skies will become the norm. We need to forge a new relationship with our forests, watersheds and wildlife, focusing on sustainability and resiliency. Otherwise, with climate change, these problems only get worse.

We can take one of two approaches: Keep putting fires out and treating native tree species, such as aspen, like weeds until the fuel loading is so bad that the ensuing wildfires are virtually uncontrollable, or invest in our landscapes, have controlled burns in the spring and fall and let some fires burn to create a natural diverse landscape that mitigates wildfires, supports people and wildlife.

The question is: How do you like your smoke?

— Jesse Zeman is the director of Fish and Wildlife Restoration Program, B.C. Wildlife Federation

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