School Administrator Edith Loring-Kuhanga was working from her home in Lytton last June when she got a phone call from a colleague: Her little community in the Fraser Canyon, known as Canada’s hot spot, was on fire.
The flames were at the end of her street.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to get out of there!’” she told an interviewer on CBC television.
At first, she didn’t think there was an emergency. But her colleague was adamant.
“’No, no, no! You’ve got to pack up and get out of there!'”
A member of the Gitxsan First Nation, Loring-Kuhanga was an administrator at the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School. She and other community leaders were told to gather at the school, which was being turned into an emergency muster centre.
She grabbed her laptop, briefcase, and a small suitcase, already packed for a trip to Victoria, and ran out the door.
“And then I realized I didn’t have my purse, so I ran back to get my purse,” she recalled. “And when I came out and went to step on the stairs, that’s when the explosion happened. It was a huge explosion. And then it was like a horror movie. All of a sudden everything was dark and gloomy and there was debris flying all over the place.”
Her own house burned to the ground, as did most others in the community of about 250 people. Most were able to escape, but one couple died seeking shelter from the flames in a pit dug for a septic tank.
Looking back five months later, Loring-Kuhanga marvelled at how fast it all unfolded.
“They estimated 23 to 25 minutes. It just happened so quickly. I mean, can you imagine? In less than half an hour, a whole town burns. I think everybody was totally taken off guard.”
But perhaps, she said, the authorities should have been better prepared, given the conditions and B.C.’s recent fire history.
According to the BC Wildfire Service, the 2021 fire season will go down as the third worst in the province’s history: more than 1,600 wildfires burned 868,00 hectares – 8680 square kilometers – an area more than one quarter the size of Vancouver Island (31,285 sq. km) and far larger than Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island (5660 sq. km). The cost of fighting those fires is estimated at $565 million.
Indeed the three worst wildfire seasons on record were all in the last five years, with 2018 (13,542 sq. km burned) and 2017 (12,160 sq. km burned) taking the top two spots.
Wildfire ecologists say the fires are getting bigger, hotter, and more aggressive, resulting in communities such as Lytton and Monte Lake burning to the ground.
“Fire behaviour is really changing,” said Dr. Kira Hoffman, a University of British Columbia postdoctoral fellow and fire ecologist now based in Prince George. “It’s shifting really fast, maybe faster than we expected it to.
“I think that heat dome (in late June) was a big wake-up call for fire ecologists, because I think that we’re pretty used to a 35-degree day or even a 38-degree day, and we can make calculations for fire behaviour based on both conditions. But when we start getting into 40 to 50 degrees Celsius, it’s just really off the charts,” said Hoffman. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Dana Hicks, a fire behaviour analyst with the B.C.’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations, agrees the heat dome at the end of June was “the big takeaway” from the past fire season.
“I always talk about the planets aligning,” Hicks said. “In my world, there’s a fire-behaviour triangle. It’s driven by weather, fuels, and topography. The topography, thank God, never really changes. Mother Nature has built that and we’re living with it.”
But the fuels and the weather are the big variables. This year the June rains never came. The grasses turned brown and dry. Then the heat dome settled on the west coast, bringing record temperatures in the 40s, and an early and devastating start to the fire season.
One thing wildfire experts emphasize is that B.C. will have to broaden its focus – from short term fire suppression to long term fire prevention.
“None of this is a mystery, right?” said Brian Simpson, the retired executive director of the BC Wildfire Service, now a consultant working for industry and government. “I mean, this was well-predicted and well-forecasted. But the important issue is this: We’re not there yet. It’s going to get worse.”
Indeed, Simpson said so himself many times over the years, in what he now refers to as his “fire and brimstone” speech.
Simpson wants to see fire management front and centre in land use planning, whether it’s for road construction, pipelines or wind farms, backcountry lodges or outdoor recreation. All these could be planned and developed in a way that helps prevent wildfires from spreading.
“The bigger issue is how do we evolve our landscape so there’s more fire resistance, and then give the fire guys a little better chance to steer these large fires away from significant assets like communities,” Simpson said.
It’s now more than 18 years since the so-called Summer of Fire, when raging wildfires in Kelowna and the Thompson region destroyed hundreds of homes.
The B.C. government responded by appointing a commission headed by former Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon to investigate the cause and recommend solutions.
The commission, in its report, Firestorm 2003, warned that a century of fire suppression had left B.C. forests loaded with fuel: densely-packed tree plantations, logging slash, deadwood, needles and bark. Meanwhile, subdivisions were built on slopes known to be fire hazards – what wildfire scientists like Robert Gray of Chilliwack call the “wildland urban interface.”
Gray co-authored the Filmon report, which called for sweeping measures to help ease the threat, through thinning, prescribed burns, and removing logging slash and other combustible material from the forest floor.
In dozens of interviews since then, he has made two points over and over: “There are no ‘no smoke’ options.” And, “we’re not going to log our way out of this.”
Gray said British Columbians can either put up with smoke now from low-level prescribed burns, or suffer far greater quantities of smoke later from out-of-control wildfires. And it’s not just standing timber that’s fuelling fires; wildfires are burning through clearcuts and logging slash, grass and rangeland, bush and undergrowth.
So why can’t we simply log our way out of this? Gray laughed at the suggestion.
“The fire problem is no longer unmanaged stands. The fire problem is all the managed stands full of slash.” It may sound counterintuitive, but Gray says many of the big fires in B.C.’s southern Interior over the past year ravaged forests that had already been harvested, were being harvested, or had nothing the industry considered worth harvesting.
One of the biggest and most destructive wildfires in the summer of 2021 was the White Rock Lake Fire.
“That fire was driven by cut blocks,” Gray said. “When you look at the fires that threatened Ashcroft and Savona and the White Rock Lake fire and all those fires, the July Mountain one up on the Coquihalla, they were all burning through leave stands – they weren’t harvested because of poor economics or poor accessibility – and harvest blocks.”
Gray and others point to a B.C. government amendment to the Wildfire Act back in 2004, which allowed logging contractors to leave their slash in the forest for up to 30 months, not 19 as previously. It was meant to reduce costs, while also allowing the wood pellet industry to collect waste wood. But it’s had the effect of leaving more fuel on the forest floor, at a time the climate is changing and temperatures are rising.
“Just as climate change is expected to generate more extreme weather, intensive forest management, namely clearcutting, creates extreme conditions locally and at the landscape level,” said forester and environmental campaigner Peter Wood in a report released in February 2021 by the Sierra Club. “Clearcutting increases the frequency and intensity of forest fires, due to the significant proportion of dead biomass left behind, sun-exposed and flammable, and the extensive network of roads involved that increases the likelihood of human-caused ignition.”
The B.C. Forest Practices Board acknowledged logging slash has become a problem in its response to a complaint from a member of the BC Wildfire Service about the conditions that fueled the Shovel Lake fire west of Prince George in 2018. The board stated, “The complainant told the board that he has worked throughout the province and has never seen the amount of debris that he saw at the Shovel Lake fire.”
Hicks, with B.C.’s forests ministry, said he’d love to see logging slash gone “within weeks of a logging operation, but that’s just the nature of the beast. And you know, we’re having those discussions. Do they physically need that much time?”
Simpson, the retired head of the Wildfire Service, said, “I’d be much more inclined to have something that’s much more black and white, and you’ve got this much time to dispose of your waste and it has to be disposed of to this standard. And that’s the end of the story.”
But forest management in B.C. is rarely a black-and-white issue.
The fire that burned Lytton couldn’t even be described as a forest fire. “The thing about this is, it was a grass fire,” said Gray. Residents are convinced a passing train started the blaze, although a Transportation Safety Board of Canada investigation found no evidence of that. Whatever the cause, once the fire started, there was little to hold it back.
“We think of fires that go 10 or 12 metres a minute as a fast-moving fire. You start looking at fires in some of these grass fuel types, you’re looking at fires that are 60, 70, 80 metres a minute,” said Hicks. “Those are extremely fast-moving fires. If you arrive there with a truck, a tank of water, and a hose, you can’t lay a 30-meter hose fast enough to even catch up with that fire.”
Gray said preventing and fighting grass fires both present challenges.
“Of course when you have a 49-degree day, every single ember is going to start a new fire. And you just couldn’t get ahead of it,” he said. “Which means that it’s one of those fuel components that we have to manage. We have to manage the grass as well as we manage the trees.”
How to do that? “Do we look at goats? Do we look at herbicides? Do we look at mowing? Those are all part of the mix.” Not only that, Gray said, treating grassland to reduce the fire threat may have to be done annually, not once a decade as in a forested landscape.
Slowly but surely, the conversation is changing in B.C.
Prescribed burning – practised more regularly until about 40 years ago when the smoky consequences of the fires fell out of favour with the public – is once again becoming an accepted way to prevent wildfires. Some communities are thinning trees and creating buffers with help from the B.C. government. Around the province, you find people, even some who depend on forestry, questioning the way the forests have been managed.
Just ask Judy Thomas. She and her husband, Rob Norwell, both registered professional foresters, have run their own consulting company, worked for the ministry of forests in Prince George, and now manage a 600-hectare woodlot on Crown land near Kamloops. The huge Sparks Lake fire burned through it last summer, but all was not lost. Thomas said they still plan to harvest up to 65 per cent of the woodlot.
“I’m not an expert on fires,” Thomas said. “But what I’ve observed is that tree plantations burned more than I thought they did.” She’s spent a lifetime observing the changes in the forests, the clearcutting, the beetle damage, the resulting salvage program, the loss of wildlife habitat.
She echoed Gray’s comments about tree plantations burning more aggressively than surrounding forest. If there’s one thing her experience has taught her it’s the need for biodiversity in the forest: “Aspen, cottonwood, birch, they’re more fire-resistant,” she said. ”Not logging the deciduous (hardwoods) intermixed in conifer stands would make it more fire-resistant, not having big clearcut aggregations.”
In Prince George, meanwhile, Hoffman, the fire ecologist, said all kinds of factors contribute to fire severity; in northern B.C., a lot of tree plantations didn’t burn, or burned at low severity. “But I think that one thing is that no matter what we did in the past, if we plant conifer trees in high density of the same species, then we’re like setting a timer for when those plantations are going to become incredibly susceptible and really risky places for wildfires to happen.”
That makes the case for biodiversity. Yet the forest industry, encouraged by government policy, has treated aspen, birch and other hardwoods as little more than weeds to be sprayed with glyphosate and killed to allow softwoods to flourish.
“We’re working with the government to modify our stocking standards,” said Hicks, from the ministry of forests. “I used to work with an old guy that used to say the biggest problem we have is we log a pine and we plant a pine. We don’t think past that. We’re just long-term gardeners where we were trying to get that pine tree to grow bigger, better, and faster.”
Ben Parfitt, a veteran journalist now with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, has spent years researching forestry policy. He said the initial mountain pine beetle attack three decades ago led to a ramping up of harvest over vast areas of B.C. forests.
Over time, “it morphed into a semi-permanent program,” Parfitt said. “In the guise of salvaging value from dead pine trees, a lot of healthy spruce and other trees were falling as well.”
The industry replanted with a species that will grow quickly: the lodgepole pine. “These young pine plantations were essentially a looming liability for the province because they were susceptible to attack and to disease outbreaks,” said Parfitt. “Now we see large numbers of younger trees burned in these horrific wildfire seasons.”
Joanne Hammond agreed: “You have these massive swaths of land with stunted, regenerating plantations, interspersed with clearcuts, with huge volumes of biomass that was left on them, with no fuel breaks. And it’s a recipe for megafires.”
Hammond is director of archaeology, heritage and environment for the Skeetchestn Natural Resources Corporation, a First Nations’ venture with offices near Kamloops. Last summer, she and her colleagues found themselves on the front lines: “The Sparks Lake fire was on one side and Tremont Creek on the other,” she said.
As an archaeologist she’s aware of the history that got us to this point, and as a senior manager with the Natural Resources Corporation, she helped to direct the fire response.
In the future, she said, “I think we need to do landscape fuel management projects that really target communities at risk.”
While she foresees a role for the forest industry, it will be more directed, with industry working closer with government and First Nations.
“It’ll be a fight. But in places like the Kamloops Forest District, which has been seriously over-harvested for long enough, and then the fires taking out even greater amounts of timber, there’s not a lot of choice anymore. For the forest industry, they cannot just go to wherever they want, because there just isn’t timber left.”
A provincial government policy document issued last June noted the long-term downward harvesting trend: “The Allowable Annual Cut (AAC) for Timber Supply Areas and Tree Farm Licensees was once as high as 85 million cubic meters (m3) per year at the height of the pine beetle salvage in 2007 but has since declined to 63 million m3 per year. It is anticipated to decline to 56 million m3 by 2026.” This was before the recent move to defer more old-growth logging.
The prospect that B.C. might run out of harvestable timber was on the mind of Liberal MLA Mike Morris when he rose in the legislature to give an impassioned speech in October. The member for Prince George-Mackenzie, a retired RCMP officer and the former parliamentary secretary for the then-ministry of forests and lands, drew on a half century of experience trapping, hunting, fishing, camping and hiking throughout B.C’s Interior.
“I’ve witnessed the slow and gradual transformation of our natural forests into what industry terms working forests, or mono-conifer plantations,” Morris said. “I’ve witnessed the cumulative effects of clearcutting and the impacts of the disappearance of wildlife populations… We are quite simply out of harvestable trees unless we don’t care about habitat for wildlife, salmon and genuine biodiversity management.”
Morris traced the problem to a 1945 royal commission on forestry that recommended B.C. pursue a sustained-yield forestry policy, which would ensure, in the commissioner’s words, “a potential supply of raw materials for forest industries with consequent stability of industrial communities and assurance of permanent payrolls.”
Fast forward to today: Morris says we see the results of this policy on the land base, with the loss of habitat for moose and marten, for owls and goshawks, for salmon and steelhead, and in the planting of vast conifer stands that are subject to beetle kill and wildfires.
He urged his colleagues to recognize the collective value of forests, not just its wood fibre: “I think we can prevent killing the goose that lays the golden egg in this province.”