U.S. wildfires should serve as warning for B.C., says UBC forest scientist

September 14, 2020

By: The Working Forest Staff

VANCOUVER SUN — As smoke from the U.S. wildfires blanketed the Metro Vancouver skyline in an orange haze over the weekend like something out of a science fiction film, a UBC scientist warned B.C. needs to be better prepared for what lies ahead.

Lori Daniels, forest and conservation sciences professor at UBC

Scientists have been saying the wildfire seasons will get worse because of the climate crisis for a decade, and now “we’re witnessing it,” said Lori Daniels, a forest and conservation sciences professor at UBC.

“What we all anticipated was coming in the future is the reality right now,” said Daniels.

Much of southern B.C. is still considered a “high” risk for wildfires, with pockets of “extreme” fire danger, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service.

Thanks in part to a wet June, and seasonal temperatures in July, the province hasn’t seen a situation like in Washington, Oregon, and California where hundreds of wildfires are burning, thousands of homes have been destroyed, and at least 25 people have died with dozens more missing.

However, Daniels said B.C. needs to prepare now and with greater urgency for a wildfire season that parallels the deadly firestorm in the U.S.

B.C.’s worst wildfire seasons were not that long ago in 2017 and 2018, and the conditions during those years were similar to this year in the U.S., as well as Australia earlier this year, and Siberia this summer: Record hot temperatures, drought, low snowpacks, and forests ravaged by insects.

More than 509 buildings burned down in the 2017 wildfires, which scorched 12,000 square kilometres of land in B.C. The following year more than 13,500 square kilometres burned. Much like California, during those two years, B.C. experienced record hot temperatures and drought leading up to the wildfire seasons.

“We are not immune to this. We already saw it in 2017 and 2018 and there will be more years like this. All parts of B.C. are susceptible to fire,” she said.

“It’s not if it’s when. And it’s not if but when for many, many communities in British Columbia.”

California also must contend with the Santa Ana and El Diablo winds, which start in the mountains and come off the deserts to give them strong wind storms.

Those started three weeks earlier than normal this year, Daniels noted.

“So they have record high temperatures, they have record droughts that have been building over many years, and now they have the Santa Ana coming and that’s the trifecta of conditions for extreme fire.”

Climate change is causing trees to die because of extreme heat and drought, which also stresses the trees and makes them vulnerable to insects, such as the bark beetle in California or the pine beetle here in Canada, said Daniels.

“Millions of trees have died in California and that became the fuel for today’s fires.”

In Canada we are not treating climate change as the crisis that it is, she said.

“We are not meeting our targets, so we have problems at the national level, provincially, and even at the individual levels. We should be doing everything we can to reduce our carbon impact on the environment.”

She also said individuals with community support should be fire smarting their properties to make them more resistant to fire, and there still needs to be wildfire resistance plans in every community.

Daniels advocates for transformative change in the way B.C. manages its forest. That means less maximizing profit and short-term costs, such as no clear-cutting and planting more broadleaf trees even though they are not as profitable as trees that produce lumber, but in the long term, it will be more sustainable for forest management.

Another big short-term cost that communities struggle with is fuel mitigation or clearing out the debris and dead wood so that the fire is less intense and easier to control.

Daniels argues the province should be spending money on wildfire preparation in the same way it has spent billions in seismic upgrades to schools, roads, and bridges to keep people safe during a catastrophic earthquake.

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