Then, in the spring of 2016, disaster descended on an unimaginable scale.
On May 1, the Horse River wildfire (suspected to be human-caused) ignited in a forested area seven kilometres outside Fort Mac.
Within two days, it had entered the city, destroying dozens of homes and businesses, and went on to threaten nearby First Nations communities, oil sands camps and facilities, critical infrastructure, and more.
It would be a full 15 months—September 2017—before the fire was declared extinguished.
Forester and biologist Bruce Blackwell, of B.A. Blackwell and Associates, remembers the fire well—in fact, he completed a regional fire management plan for the area on a contract for the Government of Alberta that same year.
Despite the hundreds of millions in investment taking place in Fort Mac, “in a lot of ways, no one really considered this issue at a level that it should have been considered,” Blackwell says.
“And I kinda thought coming out of the plan, ‘Well, this is gonna wake some people up, and some things are gonna be done to try and do it.’
“But obviously the plan was…” he pauses briefly, with an almost regretful laugh, “not done soon enough to have an impact.”
Blackwell has more than 30 years of experience under his belt, completing hundreds of fire management plans and risk assessments for communities and organizations across B.C., Alberta, the Yukon and beyond.
“Obviously you feel disappointment” knowing more could have been done in a situation like Fort Mac, he says.
“When you spend all your time working to try and protect communities, and something happens, I guess you could liken it to a doctor doing heart surgery, and the patient dies,” he says.
“It’s not a great feeling. It’s kind of an eerie feeling.”
In Blackwell’s view, fires in places like Fort McMurray, Kelowna or Slave Lake give a dire glimpse into what could happen here in Whistler.
“Honestly, I believe there are as many trees here, or more trees; there’s more fuel there, because we’re in this transition between the coast and the Interior, than most of the communities that I work in,” he says.
The level of investment and development in Whistler—and the potential devastating losses wrought by an out-of-control wildfire—are on par with or greater than what was seen in Fort Mac, he adds.
“So it warrants a very high level of attention; it warrants a high level of investment,” he says.
“And I will go to my grave before I suggest that it doesn’t.”
In a nice bit of contrast, Blackwell’s interests out of high school were in marine biology, which he studied for a couple years at the University of British Columbia before taking a year off to ski and climb.
Some of his ski buddies at the time were rappelling out of helicopters fighting fires in northern B.C.
“The second year, one of the guys that was supposed to be doing this work dropped out, and they phoned me and said, ‘Do you want to join this crew?’” he recalls.
“I just jumped at it.”
At it, and then out of it, as it were, as Blackwell spent the next year flying all over the province rappelling onto fires.
“I got exposed to firefighting, and then I was hooked,” he says.
Blackwell finished a forestry degree in 1984 and, finding a tough job market, decided to stay in school.
“I got an opportunity to work in the fire lab, which I was interested in, grinding up wood samples and helping with chemical analysis, and then that led into the project where I worked on my thesis in the Smithers area, doing prescribed fire,” he says.
“We lit fires under different intensities … I studied the effects on fuels, and I studied the effects on vegetation and soil chemistry and a bunch of different things.”
Around this time, Blackwell connected with others doing their thesis work, many of whom worked in government and for other organizations, “and I managed to sort of eke out the start of my consulting business back then, which was in my bedroom at the time,” he says.
“I was 28 at that point, and so I’ve never really had a real job. This has been my real job for a long, long time.”
Over the years Blackwell has been involved in advising on policy, as a legal expert in court, and as a consultant for dozens of governments and private organizations.
“I’ve had a pretty amazing run. [That’s] the only way I could describe it,” he says.
“And I’ve been exposed to a lot of different situations—lots of different people, with lots of different opinions … What we’ve heard and seen in Whistler goes on in every community.”
Blackwell is referring to public pushback from concerned citizens about fuel treatment—the removal of trees and vegetation to create fire breaks in strategic areas.
“I would say over the years I’ve heard all of the angles about why we should do this and why we shouldn’t do this, and my job isn’t trying to convince every single person that what we’re doing is 100-per-cent right,” he says.
“My job is to basically lay out the facts of what I think are the right things to do, and let people come to common ground on how they’re going to approach it.”
Whistler’s wildfire fuel mitigation plan aims to treat about 30 hectares of forest this year, at Spruce Grove/Lost Lake Park, Nesters Hill and the Cheakamus Lake Road FSR, at a total cost of about $575,000—$135,000 or so from the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), the rest from provincial grants.
Since 2007, the RMOW has treated 205.4 hectares, spending $4.5 million ($2.25 million of which came from provincial grants).
In that span, the municipality has issued $551,626 in payments to Blackwell (some of which is also offset by provincial funding).
As a homeowner in Whistler who enjoys the parks and trails as much as anyone, Blackwell understands the sensitivity to losing tree cover.
“But the bottom line is, if you’ve ever been near a fire that starts to go—and I’ve had a few of them—it’s a very scary, scary time, and you can only imagine it getting big and impacting so many different people’s lives,” he says.
“One day there will be a fire here that’s significant, and we’re going to have to react to it … I’m trying very hard to convince people it’s not about removing every tree, it’s just removing some of them so that they don’t burn as hot.”
A GUT REACTION
Rhonda Millikin, a longtime forest ecologist and recently joined member of Whistler’s Forest and Wildlands Advisory Committee (FWAC), doesn’t want to sound overly dramatic when asked for her initial reaction to seeing the results of Whistler’s fuel-thinning efforts in Lost Lake Park.
“I cried. I did,” she says with a laugh.
“I literally cried. I was so appalled, and I wanted to try and find a way that I could pause what we’re doing long enough for us to really validate why [we are] doing this.
“What are the principles behind what we’re doing? Where is this guidance coming from?”
Millikin has 35 years of experience working with the federal government, first spending 10 years as a forest ecologist for the Canadian Forestry Service (now Natural Resources Canada), then 25 with the Canadian Wildlife Service.
She also worked in Brazil on a World Wildlife Fund project studying overgrowth forests.
“[We] looked at diminishing sizes of these forest stands—so starting from thousands of hectares down to one hectare—and we looked at how the amount of edge to interior forest influences the change in the micro climate,” she says.
“So how with increased solar radiation, and increased wind current, the trees start dying off, and that impacts all of the food webs and the ecosystem processes in a forest.”
It was this experience that triggered a “gut reaction” in Millikin upon seeing the work at Lost Lake.
“It was like, ‘Oh my god, we’re repeating exactly what happened in Brazil, where we’re increasing the edge to the interior of the forest, particularly along topographic features,’” she says.
“And that leads to increased wind currents coming in, increased solar radiation, which dries everything out, changes the microclimate, and leads to the death of the trees, basically.”
Millikin is a self-proclaimed “North Van girl” who’s been skiing in Whistler since the ‘80s. She purchased in the community in 2011 and retired here full time in 2018.
She says she joined the FWAC due to her general interest in forest conservation, as well as concern over the management of old growth and fire thinning.
On April 30, Millikin conducted a 4.5-hour study of the effect of fire thinning in Lost Lake on snowmelt.
The results of the study (which was preliminary in nature, conducted on her own, and should be repeated next year, Millikin noted in a follow-up email) point to decreased snow and decreased soil moistures where thinning has occurred, she wrote in a letter to council.
“As the literature and forest ecology experts suggest, fire thinning in our forest type will INCREASE fire risk.”
By her fourth attendance at FWAC, she was giving a presentation to the committee expressing her concern with Whistler’s wildfire fuel management practices, which led to a letter to council and subsequent presentation to the Committee of the Whole from Blackwell (see Pique, July 16: “Should Whistler rethink its approach to wildfire mitigation?”).
As an add-on to the discussion, the RMOW organized a field trip to various fuel-treatment sites in the valley, inviting Blackwell, Millikin, FWAC members, mayor and council and Pique Newsmagazine to learn more about Whistler’s wildfire mitigation efforts.
MAKING A STAND
Blackwell stands at the edge of a steep slope high above Whistler’s Horstman Estates, as about a dozen or so interested parties listen to him describe his thought process in treating the site some 10 to 12 years ago.
The stand had about 3,000 to 3,500 stems per hectare, Blackwell recalled, and his crews thinned everything that was less than 22.5 centimetres, leaving the biggest, healthiest conifers.
“Why? Because they provide shade, they retain moisture, and because they’re dominant,” Blackwell says.
“They also have a better chance of staying healthy and resilient over time, so they’re not likely to be attacked by insects.”
The key thing, from a fire point of view, is reducing the fine fuels, he adds—fuels less than six inches or 12.5 centimetres that will contribute to the spread of a fire.
“When you get a fire on a roadside, or when you get a fire where somebody is fooling around, it has to have a fine fuel, usually, to start the ignition and spread the fire,” Blackwell says.
“A lot of people used to say we’re almost gardening here, because there’s so little fine fuel here.”
In treating the sites, crews reduce surface fuels and prune up lower branches to “reduce the continuity of fuel on the ground moving fire up into the crown,” Blackwell says.
“And we try to thin the crowns so that fire, in a wind, can’t go crown to crown.”
The trick, he adds, is how hard to thin, and how many trees to remove.
After more than 10 years, the treatment of the Horstman stand is starting to lose some of its effectiveness, Blackwell notes as he surveys the site.
Crews will likely have to revisit it in the next 15 years to reduce further stems, he says.
If he were to do it again?
“I would have liked to thin it harder,” Blackwell says, noting that while the Horstman site was thinned to 500 or 600 stems per hectare, on recent fuel-thinning projects in the Callaghan and on Cheakamus Lake Road, crews are moving closer to 300 stems per hectare.
“Which in my mind is going to provide an effective break longer, and we won’t have to reenter it and we won’t have to re-spend more money,” he says.
And money is tight.
Fuel treatments in Whistler are “the most expensive in the province,” Blackwell says, due to an abundance of biomass largely spread over steep terrain.
If the RMOW were to achieve everything set out in its 2011 Community Wildfire Protection Plan, it would have to treat 1,200 hectares, Blackwell says—well beyond current budget and time constraints.
“So far we’ve been able to treat about 300 [hectares]. So we’re about a quarter of the way to where we need to be, in my opinion,” he says.
“The rest of the landscape we can’t afford to deal with it, so these are very strategically placed; they’re placed against homes or where we think we can make a stand.”
Those last three words may do more to encapsulate Blackwell’s philosophy than any half-day tour or investigative cover feature ever could.
When it boils down to it, his work is about creating anchor points for BC Wildfire Crews to make a stand in the event of a fire.
With Whistler’s hot, dry summers—only forecasted to get longer, hotter and drier in the face of climate change—the big risk is the winds, Blackwell says, which can come in inflows or outflows depending on the heat gradient in the Interior and on the coast.
“It could come from the south, or it could come from the north, either way. So you’ve got two sides to protect,” Blackwell says, adding that the RMOW has also started working towards a “landscape strategy” rather than a “postage stamp” approach in the past five years, identifying where crews will have the best chance to make a stand before sending in the fuel-thinning crews.
“And when I say make a stand against a fire, we can put retardant down through the trees, we could put people on the ground safely, or we could conduct a burning operation where we backburn into the fire to remove more fuel,” Blackwell says.
The projects south of Whistler in Cheakamus and the Callaghan represent strategic breaks, he adds—the strategy is that if a fire hits the breaks, it will go to ground.
“And the science is pretty strong, and we’re pretty confident, that under most fire conditions the fire will go to ground,” he says.
“Can I say absolutely it will go to ground? No, I can’t. But I think I can say that we have high confidence that it’s going to improve and provide a much stronger opportunity to make a stand in that location.”
While Millikin was pleased that mayor, council and FWAC took time to do the tour, “I still feel very concerned that we have increased the fire risk rather than decreased it,” she says, adding that, because she’s a scientist, she called many friends involved in forestry and fire science, and consulted more than 50 papers on the topic.
“And I cannot find evidence for fire thinning in our forest type. The evidence is based on California forests, and mostly ponderosa pine.”
There is a real need for more monitoring of the effects of Whistler’s wildfire mitigation efforts to ensure important biodiversity isn’t lost, she adds, noting that after more than a decade, some forest attributes are missing in previously thinned areas.
“I had a list of the arboreal lychens, the bryophytes, the dead standing or fallen trees, exposed roots, lower branches, large living trees and well-developed understory—I mean, those things are not present, and they’re all critical for a healthy interior forest,” she says.
“I’m really just asking that we pause, both the fire thinning and the fuel-break cutting, until we’ve monitored what we’re doing.”
Monitoring should be peer-reviewed and conducted by an independent fire scientist, Millikin adds, and involve community volunteers as well.
Nevertheless, Blackwell says he “honestly believes” the treatments will have a positive biological impact on the forests, and notes that local biologist Bob Brett has helped supervise the work.
While Europe has a long history of effective, small-scale tree removal in its fire management, in British Columbia the “two extremes” tend to whip between small-scale arboriculture (removing individual trees around homes using chainsaws and chippers) to 40-tonne machines meant for clear-cutting, Brett says.
His work with Blackwell over the years “has been consistent in working in second-growth forests, near subdivisions, and in that middle ground between, it’s much bigger than an arborist, but it’s smaller scale than industrial logging,” he says.
From Brett’s point of view, one of the biggest concerns with Whistler’s wildfire thinning is those who may misuse the term in search of profit.
Brett points to a fuel-thinning project in the Wedge area north of Whistler carried out by the Cheakamus Community Forest in 2017 that removed old growth as part of the work.
“They had some blocks around Wedge Creek that they called fuel management when they were actually logging old growth and leaving a few trees behind—which is a misuse of the term,” he says.
“If they’re in old growth and calling it fuel management, as far as I’m concerned, either they don’t quite understand the priorities or they’re doing it to make money.”
You can tell it’s logging rather than fuel management if the new stumps are bigger than the trees left behind, Brett says.
“Whereas what we do is the opposite; it’s called thinning from below, where you take the smallest trees and you keep on taking the next smaller tree until you get the density you want,” he says.
But what’s really missing in Whistler’s wildfire treatments are all the “non-commercial” aspects, Brett says.
“Biodiversity values—that to me is what’s missing in a lot of these treatments,” he says, adding that B.C. has a long history of industrial forestry, and as such, a tendency to view things through that lens while neglecting other values.
“Wildlife, water, aesthetics—just old growth values in general,” he says.
“We have a chance to restore these second-growth forests that are biological deserts.”
While biodiversity is mentioned in wildfire prescriptions, “the reality is, it’s never the top priority,” Brett says.
“It will never be as high-priority as fire or reducing fire risk, because that’s what pays for [the treatments], but anytime you do forest management you have a chance to achieve more than one goal,” he adds.
“And humans, and B.C. logging in general has been much, much too focused on just that one goal of producing fibre.”
MONITORING PROGRAM IN THE WORKS
Millikin’s point about monitoring is well founded, Blackwell concedes, noting that typically, “we don’t go back and look at it enough.”
“I have spent a lot of time walking areas and looking at what they look like today, but we don’t have a budget, and haven’t had a budget, to go and collect information about those areas,” he says
“And I think if that’s an outcome of this, that’s fine, but my biggest concern is that we really need to continue to focus on doing the work, and we don’t want to be distracted by a bunch of peripheral things in terms of drawing a lot of money away, to look at what we did, versus what we need to do.”
In a follow-up email, Heather Beresford, the RMOW’s environmental stewardship manager, confirmed that the RMOW is budgeting to develop a wildfire treatment-monitoring program in 2021.
While details are yet to be determined, the new monitoring efforts will include “community and environmental values as discussed at the field trip,” Beresford said.
But in Brett’s estimation, monitoring isn’t necessary.
“To me that’s the wrong direction,” he says.
“We know what to do, and that’s to leave more wildlife components (like dying and dead trees) when we go back into these stands, and to make it a true priority rather than just to take logs.”
As important as his work is, Blackwell also urges homeowners and stratas to do their part to be FireSmart.
“All the fuel management that we’re doing ... [won’t] be effective unless people start dealing with their own private properties,” he says.
“From my perspective, the message of FireSmart at the local property level is as important as what we’re doing.”