Wildfire: Could it happen here? 

Sooner or later all forests see fire, but not all forests burn the same way

Last summer’s fires in interior B.C. hammered home the risk of living next to forests. The toll was staggering: 334 homes lost, 45,000 people evacuated, three firefighter deaths, and total costs approaching $700 million.

And B.C. wasn’t alone. Fires raged from Washington to southern California, often right next to densely-populated communities. This summer is shaping up to be another dry one and odds are it will be another big fire year.

Last year’s fires certainly got people’s attention, especially in the dry Interior where populations are booming with migrants attracted by the sunny, dry climate and cowboy-lite culture. Subdivisions in places like Kamloops and Invermere are nestled among the vanilla-scented ponderosa pines that make these areas so picturesque.

What the real estate ads neglect to mention is that these beautiful forests will, sooner or later, see fire.

Of course, over the past 60 or so years, wildfires have been very effectively controlled. So it’s understandable that our species’ primal fear of wildfires has dimmed and we feel comfortable building cedar-shaked, wood-framed houses in the forest. Ironically, the success of the Smokey the Bear approach to suppressing all fires has made many forests much more flammable. Last year’s fires were a predictable, if delayed, consequence.

The bottom line is that fire is going to happen. Historically, fires in ponderosa pine ecosystems happened every 10 or 15 years. Frequent, low-severity surface fires kept dead wood and forest litter from building up and also killed many of the smaller trees. Bigger trees, due to their thick bark, usually survived in open, park-like stands.

After decades of effective fire control, the average dry forest is denser and much more susceptible to severe fires. The in-growth of smaller trees, no longer controlled by fire, provides a perfect ladder for fires to move into the tree canopy. When a fire reaches this stage, it becomes much more intense and difficult to control, and it doesn’t leave much standing in its wake – neither trees nor million dollar houses.

An interface fire conference in Whistler this past week drew more than 200 experts to discuss ways to reduce risks from interface fires and to restore historic forest conditions. The 28 impressive speakers included experts from throughout the American west, Alberta, and B.C. Two main conclusions emerged:

(i) We need to reduce fuels in forests to lower the risk of high-severity fires, and

(ii) Communities and homeowners need to take an active role in fireproofing.

These conclusions mirror key recommendations made earlier this year by Gary Filmon, ex-premier of Manitoba. Filmon, who spoke at the conference, was commissioned by the B.C. government to review last year’s fires and recently published his findings in a report called Firestorm 2003.


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