When do you want your smoke? B.C. Wildfire wants to expand fires into the shoulder season | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source
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When do you want your smoke? B.C. Wildfire wants to expand fires into the shoulder season

Smoke from wildfires can have a devastating impact on air quality. Controlled burns in the spring and fall can reduce that hazard.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/BC Wildfire Service

Just as tourism organizations like to expand the summer tourism season into the spring and fall “shoulder” seasons, so too does B.C. Wildfires want to spread out the smoke from burning forests.

“I don’t think we’re going to get away from wildfire smoke in the summer,” Rory Colwell, superintendent of fuels management for B.C. Wildfire Service, told iNFOnews.ca. “If we’re doing more prescribed burning in the shoulder seasons, where we have a little bit more control over where that smoke production is and the duration of it, I think that’s probably a better situation for us to collectively be in.”

B.C. had a devastating wildfire season in 2021. It was not record-setting in terms of acreage burned like it was in 2017 and 2018, but it was a record year for acreage burned in the Kamloops Fire District.

READ MORE: Kamloops Fire Centre sees record-breaking number of hectares burned this year

A total of 343 homes burned in places like Lytton, Monte Creek and the Westside of Okanagan Lake near West Kelowna.

What is clear is that there will be more prescribed or controlled burns in coming years, something that was done routinely by First Nations people throughout B.C.

“To our own detriment, we’ve maybe been a little too successful in fire suppression over the past number of decades and not doing that type of burning so that we have the fuel buildup on the forest floor and those ladder fuels, smaller ingrown trees that would contribute to the crown fire initiation,” Colwell said.

Called variously, prescribed, broadcast or controlled burns, they aren’t simply a matter of lighting up an overgrown forest and burning off the debris and smaller trees.

There has to be a lot more control over such fires so that means burning areas that have already been cleaned up by hand or with machines. The debris is cleared off the forest floor and the smaller trees thinned out.

The fire mitigation process started in B.C. in 2005 or 2006, Colwell said. It continues today through grants to municipalities and First Nations funded through the Union of B.C. Municipalities.

The province put $61.8 into the fund in 2018, to be spent over four seasons. The uptake has increased each year. In 2019, projects worth $9.3 million were approved. Another $11.9 was awarded in 2020 and $15.4 million this year, leaving $25.3 for next year.

Often the material that’s cleared away is chipped but some of it is stacked and burned, as the Westbank First Nation is currently doing on its lands near West Kelowna. Burning those piles is subject to strict venting rules.

Depending on what grows up on those treated lands, they are ready for a prescribed burn to clear out the accumulated debris anywhere from two to 15 years after the initial mitigation is done.

Such burns can only be done in an untreated forest in areas where there is open grassland with fire breaks, Colwell said.

In recent years, 3,000 to 6,000 hectares are burned each year in what is officially called Resource Management Open Fires.

Few have been done in the Thompson or Okanagan, however.

An effort to burn 1,100 hectares near Crater Mountain, which is about 15 km west of Keremeos, started last spring in conjunction with the Okanagan Nation Alliance and the Lower Similkameen Indian Band.

It’s being done not only for wildfire mitigation but also to improve habitat for bighorn sheep and protect cultural values.

Only part of the burn was done before a change in weather ended the project. It’s hoped it can be finished next spring.

That delay is a bit ironic since last spring was the best for such burns in a decade, Colwell said.

“We had some dryer conditions early on while there was still lots of moisture in the soils and we were able to carry out, provincially, probably more prescribed fire than we have maybe in the last decade,” he said.

The same was not the case in the fall.

“What we saw this year, and it’s complexly opposite to what we saw in previous years, we had such a dry summer and, in some parts of the province, we had a wet fall that allowed the grass to green up again. A lot of the under burning that happens relies on cured grass to carry the fire. When we have too high a component of green grass we don’t get the fire to spread the way we want it to.”

It can take a year to plan a controlled burn and some of that work went out the window this year because some of the areas targeted for controlled burning were destroyed by wildfires.

These controlled burns are not subject to open burning regulations where the venting index has to be rated as good before burning can be allowed, leaving only an average of 66 days a year for such fires.

READ MORE: Open burning in Kamloops, Okanagan a 'balancing act'

Controlled burns for wildfire mitigation can be done under any venting conditions, Colwell said, but such burning won’t be done under poor venting conditions or if the wind is blowing towards houses.

Whatever smoke is generated from such burns is typically less than what’s produced in a wildfire situation and only lasts a few days.

The main goal is to treat areas close to where people live and set it up so firefighters, whether from B.C. Wildfire or local fire departments, have a better chance of battling the fire on the ground.

What is also crucial to such efforts is to get the public on board.

“What we, in B.C. Wildfire Service, have noticed and been aware of over the past decade is, unfortunately, in general, people’s memories tend to be short unless the fire or the smoke is kind of at the doorstep or affecting you.

“We need some education about open burning and smoke and understanding that balancing act of reducing wildfire risk in and around communities. We’re going to have to live with some smoke. Ideally it means having it in the shoulder season from controlled burning activities to reduce wildfire risks in communities that folks have chosen to live in.”


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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