B.C. forests have lost only 708 hectares to wildfire so far in 2020, below the modest 21,138 last summer and a tiny fraction of the record 1.4 million hectares lost in 2018.
That’s a temporary reprieve for the B.C. Wildfire Service as it works to adapt firefighting in the COVID-19 pandemic, Forests Minister Doug Donaldson says. August heat and human activity will determine the final outcome.
For the longer term, the ministry is providing $5 million to expand research capacity with a new research chair at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops to “help chart a new course in wildfire prediction and response,” Donaldson announced in Victoria July 30. The University of Northern B.C. in Prince George and UBC Okanagan in Kelowna are also involved in the research effort.
Indigenous knowledge and use of fire to shape the landscape and its wildlife will be part of the strategy, Donaldson said. That’s a recommendation by the post-2017 emergency response review conducted by former forests minister George Abbott and Chief Maureen Chapman of the Sto:lo Nation council.
The Abbott-Chapman report focused on emergency management and integrating Indigenous communities into day-by-day wildfire response, as the province grappled with widespread evacuations and the need to protect population and property while long-accumulated forest fuel was allowed to burn away.
Groundbreaking research in 2017 from the University of B.C. forestry department illustrated the effect of post-war mechanized firefighting on an ancient block of the Alex Fraser Research Forest in the Cariboo. Trees that have stood since the early 1600s show fire scarring on average every 15 years, a pattern that all but stopped after 1943.
Without the fire cycle’s removal of dead and thin-barked trees, the makeup of B.C. forests changed. “Today’s dense forests are perpetuated by the lack of fires – from land use change (including removing Aboriginal cultural fire from the land) … and fire suppression intended to protect our communities and forest resources,” wrote Dr. Lori Daniels, associate professor at the UBC forest department.
The vast majority of wildfires seen this year have been human-caused, far above the 40 to 50 per cent that B.C. sees in a fire season. The rest are lightning strikes in dry timber conditions, which can be as unpredictable as the string of dry lightning storms that added to the 2018 fires and evacuations in the B.C. Interior.
Going into the August long weekend in 2018, lightning sparked 75 new fires in a single day. That was fewer than June 20, 2018, when an estimated 19,000 lightning strikes started 115 new fires across B.C.
The record for forest fire area was set then and broken in 2018, but the 2017 season was the most costly. The ministry estimates wildfires and floods left a bill of $1.6 billion that year, with disruption to communities, ranches and tourism.