B.C. residents can choose when they want their forests to burn - InfoNews

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B.C. residents can choose when they want their forests to burn

Prescribed burning of forests can reduce wildfire risk and open up the forest for grazing animals.
June 21, 2019 - 6:30 PM

KELOWNA - Heavy rain is needed for the rest of June or the Okanagan will be in for a “crazy” fire season, says one of B.C.’s leading experts on setting forests on fire.

John Davies is a principle of Frontline Operations Group with extensive experience in fighting wildfires and finding ways to protect communities from them.

He is currently working as a consultant on a number of prescribed burning proposals, including in West Kelowna which could become one of the first communities in B.C. to use prescribed burns as a tool to protect the city from uncontrolled wildfires.

“We’ve been telling the public for a really long time that fire’s bad - Smokey the Bear and whatnot,” Davies told iNFOnews.ca. “We need to change that. Not all fires are bad.”

Prescribed burns are designed to get rid of the undergrowth that can burn so hot that normally fire resistant trees are destroyed.

“You have a choice on when you want your smoke,” Davies said. “You can have it in small doses in spring and fall for prescribed burning or you can have it all summer long like we’ve had it for the last two years.”

But, before he can even try to sell the public on prescribed burns, the Okanagan has to get through what is shaping up to be another terrible wildfire season.

“We always get the lightning in July, we know that’s coming. It’s very rare that it doesn’t materialize,” Davies said. “If June is dry, we’ve got the potential for a crazy fire season, because we’ve already had a really dry spring. I’m guessing, unless the next two weeks get some very significant amount of rain, probably above average, we’ll get a tinderbox.”

Davies was the consultant who designed the fire mitigation plan in Kelowna’s south slopes where the forest has been thinned dramatically. There, and elsewhere in the province, decades of firefighting have allowed thick undergrowth of trees to clog the forests, making them unsuitable for many grazing animals and susceptible to uncontrolled forest fires.

In the past, First Nations people regularly burned forests and controlled that growth.

Even into the 1980s prescribed burns were lit following logging operations. The debris was left on the ground and burnt off instead of being pushed into slash piles for burning in the winter.

“It makes planting easier and cheaper,” Davies explained. “Burning up those nutrients causes a nutrient flush to the soil which helps with the planting. It gets rid of brush and whatnot so the only live vegetation, when you plant, are the trees that you planted so they have a head start over everything else.”

That practice stopped in the 1980s when the province turned over responsibility for such work to the timber harvesting companies, which did not want to take the risk of fires spreading.

Since then, prescribed burning has been mostly used for things like improving the habitat for browsing animals.

It has, on occasion, also been used to protect communities from wildfire.

Back in 2008 or 2010, Davies did a burn in Fintry for fire prevention reasons but that was a rare exception.

Along with West Kelowna, he’s also working on prescribed burning plans in the Penticton and Ellis creek areas of the South Okanagan.

Such burns can only be done at lower elevations where Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine are the dominant species. Those are “fire resister” species with thick bark that can withstand fires. Lodgepole pine, balsam and spruce tend to be in higher elevation areas and are “fire avoiders.” That means, fires will either burn them up or kill them.

It likely won’t be until October before any West Kelowna fires are lit and they will be small scale – maybe about two hectares or what Davies calls “postage stamp” sized compared to the forest as a whole.

But it’s a start of a process that, over time, will create fire resistant barriers around the city.

“The public needs to see prescribed burning,” Davies said. “They need to see what it looks like, the short amount of time that it creates smoke compared to wildfires and also to see what it looks like a year later once it greens up with fresh brush and shrubbery.”

He also pointed out that, not only is there a choice to be made as to when forests burn but also in terms of the type of smoke people will need to accept.

“There are two very different types of smoke due to the intensity at which they burn,” Davies said. “Forest fire smoke is more polluting. They basically just consume everything. You get particulate matter in it.

“With prescribed burning, much less material burns, it’s well seasoned and is burnt under good venting conditions and other environmental conditions so you have better control. You have less smoke and you have it for a very defined period.”

Given the need for just the right combination of moisture in the ground and dry material so it burns cleanly, along with having the proper venting index, there are only very small windows in the spring and fall where prescribed burning is viable.

That means, in order to burn the 100 hectares that’s planned for the Ellis Creek area, for example, it may take a couple of years to accomplish.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2019
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