Our future with forest fires 

AWARE, Sea to Sky Clean Air Society hold symposium looking at reality of forest fires in the region

click to flip through (3) PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BC WILDFIRE SERVICE - A firefighter battles the Elaho wildfire last summer.
  • Photo courtesy of the BC WIldfire service
  • A firefighter battles the Elaho wildfire last summer.
   
 

As Whistler's summers get hotter and drier, what does our future with forest fires look like in the Sea to Sky Region?

It's a question that's been on the minds of many in the wake of the devastating fire that decimated Fort McMurray last month.

On June 23, a Climate Action Symposium hosted by AWARE and the Sea to Sky Clean Air Society explored the question via a series of expert guest speakers.

What is being done locally and beyond to prepare us for the risk of wildfire? What effect does smoke from such fires have on our health, and how can we mitigate it? What are the possible impacts to tourism and recreation, Whistler's bread and butter?

Read on to see what the experts had to say on these most timely of topics.

THE NEW REALITy

"Really, what we're seeing across North America and almost across the globe is that the size and intensity of wildfires has increased substantially over the last 20 years, and particularly in B.C.," said Bruce Blackwell, professional forester and biologist.

"We've had six or seven years of aggressive fire behaviour since 2003."

Blackwell is one of the province's leading forest-fire ecologists. He's been working with the Resort Municipality of Whistler in recent years to prepare the community for wildfire, using fuel management and prescribed burning techniques.

But in some ways, the very act of fire suppression has fed into B.C.'s new forest fire reality.

"We've been effective at suppressing fires for over 100 years, and that has allowed fuels to build up in our forests," Blackwell said.

"Therefore, when they do burn there's a lot more energy in the forest and they burn more aggressively."

If communities don't mitigate forest fire fuels, extreme smoke events will become more common, Blackwell said.

"We have a choice: We can do some burning where we control some of those emissions, and we can emit lesser amounts of smoke into the atmosphere and deal with some of our fuel problems, or we end up in these kind of conditions which are relatively extreme and we have no control over them," he said, noting that Whistler has only recently started to do control burns.

"(In 2015) we burned fuels from about 20 hectares over about eight weeks under controlled conditions and emitted a lot less smoke," Blackwell said.

"I think in the end we had one complaint."

Whistler was one of the first communities in B.C. to complete a community wildfire protection plan in 2006, and has worked with the Union of BC Municipalities to obtain grants to pay for fuel removal, Blackwell said.

"Whistler has maintained a high level of emergency response to wildfire, and is well aware of the problem and is doing what it can internally to work to protect the community," he said.

Blackwell has been hired by the municipality to develop a strategic plan to accelerate the broader and more effective protection of the community, but he admits the work is slow going.

"At the current rate we're going, we're not going to be in a meaningful place for about 20 years," he said.

"I think the decision-makers would like to see something more aggressive happen more quickly, and they're willing to entertain a new model to try and get there."

The first key to protecting Whistler from a calamitous wildfire is communication and public education, Blackwell said.

"Essentially, more people need to understand the community's vulnerability to fire, more people need to be talking about it, more people need to be protecting their own properties," he said.

"Where I think the community completely falls down, and I'll be blunt about it, is that we have not embraced FireSmart in this community. There are way too many homes that have materials and or vegetation too close to their structures that, in the event of a fire, are not going to survive."

The Fort McMurray fire highlights the extreme risks of not adhering to FireSmart principles, Blackwell said.

"I can tell you there's probably 30 or 40 communities in B.C. that face the same risk profile as Fort Mac, and if the Boulder Creek fire that we had over in the Elaho last year had been in this valley we would have been the Fort McMurray of last year," he said

"So I'm being blunt, but I think it's what we need to think about."

In reducing fuels around Whistler, Blackwell and his team are focused on three elements: separation of tree crowns (so fires can't move tree to tree), removing ladder fuels (so fires can't climb up trees) and removing surface fuels.

"We can't do this everywhere, so we're trying to do this strategically so that these areas become anchors that our forest-protection people can use to drop retardant, to set up a sprinkler line or make a stand," Blackwell said.

"And these areas are going to stop fire from spreading up the hill, or a lightning-caused fire on the slopes from moving down into the community."

Progress has been made, but the process must be accelerated, Blackwell said.

"We need to do things faster," he said. "We need to reduce this window of 20 years down to 10 years and reduce the window of opportunity for a significant event."

"I think that homeowners throughout the community need to take FireSmart seriously. It's not just up to the RMOW, it's not just up to the province to protect everybody's homes. If you're leaving vegetation around your house, growing into your decks and your windows, we're not going to save your house in one of these events."

SEEING THROUGH THE SMOKE

While Whistler wasn't directly impacted by wildfire last summer, the smoke from fires in the region blanketed the resort for days.

It could be a sign of what to expect in future summers, and as the frequency and intensity of wildfires ramps up, communities should be prepared to deal with the effects of smoke, said Sarah Henderson, senior environmental health scientist with the BC Centre for Disease Control.

"The best thing that we can do is understand what the health impacts of that smoke is and try to protect ourselves from the smoke when it happens," Henderson said.

But smoke can be hard to define – it changes with the type of fire, the fuel that's producing it and the moisture in the fuel – and it's made up of fine particulate matter (PM), measuring less than 2.5 microns in diameter.

"In general, in a beautiful pristine environment like Whistler, the 24-hour average of PM 2.5 concentrations is less than 10 and usually less than 6," Henderson said.

"We live in a very clean place and so we have very low concentrations on a day to day basis. That changes when we have smoke events."

Forest-fire smoke causes episodes of the worst air quality most North Americans will ever see, Henderson said.

When the smoke descended on Whistler last summer, the community was looking at smoke concentrations of 150 to 200 micrograms per cubic metre.

In Williams Lake in 2009, it was 1,300 – among the highest ever recorded in B.C.

Smoke can cause headaches, impaired lung function, coughs, sore throats or worse.

"When it's smoky outside, absolutely everyone is affected, that is true, but the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to forest fire smoke is anybody with asthma," Henderson said.

"Anybody whose health is knocked down on a day-to-day basis by some sort of chronic condition is at more risk as soon as the air quality starts to deteriorate."

If you're caught in a smoke event and worried for your health, the best action you can take is to seek cleaner air – either by self-evacuating until the smoke clears or by sheltering in place. Personal air filters can be purchased for your home starting at about $150.

"The other key piece of info is take it easy," Henderson said.

"These are not necessarily days where you have to go out and try to set a personal best... The higher your respiration rate, the more smoke you're breathing in."

Anybody with a pre-existing health condition needs a plan for how to act when it gets smoky, Henderson said – spare rescue medication and emergency phone numbers are a must.

It's important to pay attention to Air Quality Advisories – found at www.bcairquality.ca – "but it's even more important that you pay attention to your own body and that you pay attention to the health of your family and the people that you care about around you," Henderson said.

HARD TRUTHS

Statistically, Whistler's fire season has been expanding by about two days every year.

"It doesn't sound like much, but when you start thinking about it, I've been here in Whistler with the fire service over 30 years, that's two months of extra fire season that we're looking at today," said Whistler Fire Rescue Services (WFRS) chief Geoff Playfair.

Whistler's fire department has the resources to deal with a house fire. A few houses on fire is something the department could also manage. Anything beyond that is almost a guaranteed disaster.

"What would happen if we had a subdivision fully impacted by fire? It's just not in our reality to deal with that," Playfair said. "It's something for us all to consider."

And if you haven't already, you should really be considering a FireSmart makeover for your property as well.

The full manual can be found online at www.whistler.ca/fire/firesmart, and the WFRS provides free home assessments by appointment.

"If we really want to start to look at how do we make Whistler safe from a private land perspective, we need to start working with our neighbours," Playfair said.

"Ultimately what we need to try here in Whistler is FireSmart neighbourhood programs, getting people working together to create the FireSmart effect for their street or for their subdivision within Whistler."

A 2014 assessment of 2,500 homes in the valley found that about half were at high risk, a quarter were at extreme risk and another quarter were at moderate risk.

"It provides us a view of the valley as a whole, and lets us target some high-risk areas," Playfair said, noting that this year's focus will be on the Blueberry Hill, Emerald, Alpine and Spring Creek subdivisions.

One challenge for the WFRS is getting the various stratas onboard, Playfair said.

"I've dealt with a number of them over the years, providing them feedback and info as to what they can do to mitigate, and typically you do that and by the time it gets to a strata vote at an AGM, inevitably there is resistance and the project fails, so it's (a challenge) getting past that barrier, but we're working on it," he said.

Getting homeowners and stratas to switch from cedar shake to steel roofs would go a long way to minimizing wildfire risk, but municipalities lack the legislative teeth to do so, Playfair said.

There was a push in the early 2000s to ban cedar shake roofs, but industry pushback means they are still widely used – even in places like Kelowna, which experienced a vicious blaze of its own in 2003.

"Building bylaw changes, lobbying for FireSmart inclusions in the B.C. building code, these are all things that are underway, whether they're going to change ultimately it's hard to say," Playfair said.

A 'Fire Robot' – an infrared camera that can detect fires in the valley – was planned for a pilot project this summer, but had to be postponed.

"Unfortunately, Fort McMurray occurred, and all the product that they had are now sold and my demo is gone, so we won't be doing this this summer," Playfair said.

Moving forward, Whistler needs to accept that small fires are a part of the landscape and are going to occur, and it needs a built environment that can withstand them.

"We do that in a number of ways: By educating the public about FireSmart principles for both their buildings and their yards, regulations that encourage FireSmart and public lands that don't support large wildfires."

WIDE-RANGING IMPACTS AND A THREAT TO TOURISM

The Boulder Creek and Elaho wildfires of 2015 didn't lead to loss of critical infrastructure or human life, but that doesn't mean their impact was small.

"(The fires) burned out 2,500 hectares of ungulate range – so goat and moose – 1,188 ha of grizzly bear habitat areas that have been protected, 620 ha of old growth management areas, and... 1,300 ha of park and some of the conservancy," said Scott Shaw-MacLaren, resource manager for the Sea to Sky Natural Resource District of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

When similar fires take their toll on the Interior, there is more land to work with in replacing such areas, Shaw-MacLaren said, but the coast provides more challenges.

"We don't really have a policy for replacing these habitat areas or anything like that when they burn up, and we're just sort of toying with that now," he said.

"Ungulate winter ranges and grizzly habitat ranges are picked for certain attributes, and they're not easy to just go and find replacements."

The fires had other socioeconomic implications as well – 7,000 ha of timber harvesting land base was burned, and work on the Upper Lillooet Hydro Project northwest of Pemberton was delayed significantly.

There was also a negative effect on backcountry operators, unable to offer tours due to the fires.

"When you're charging $200 to $300 per person per day for a rafting trip, and you miss five days of rafting trips, that's a fair amount of money to a small business," Shaw-MacLaren said.

To help minimize losses to their businesses – and tourism in the region in general – operators have to make fire prevention a priority.

"Having backcountry cabins and lodges is really popular for tourism, and everybody loves looking at trees... but if you look at those trees as essentially a wild animal that could kill you at any point, you start to look at them differently," Shaw-MacLaren said.

The scarred landscape and losses to operators are unfortunate, but the situation could have been much more desperate.

"If the fires happened in the lower valley we would have been in a Fort McMurray situation," Shaw-McLaren said.

"The way our district is laid out, really these were the only two spots in the entire district when you look at where infrastructure is and all that stuff, that these fires could happen without massive loss of infrastructure or potentially loss of life, so we got really lucky."

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