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In places and situations here a human might feel unsafe, emerging technology can fly safely above

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Meghan Degraff, a tree planter and supervisor of forestry company All Star Silviculture, sits in a logged area located near a camp for tree planters in Celista, B.C., on May 12.(Aaron Hemens/The Globe and Mail)The Globe and Mail

When Meghan DeGraff, a supervisor for All Star Silviculture in Enderby, B.C., is called in to replace trees torched by a forest fire, the veteran tree planter says unstable trees and high winds can make her work dangerous.

“You have to be really, really aware if the wind picks up, and you have to be constantly looking around and listening,” Ms. DeGraff said.

Planting trees in places scorched by forest fire can help its ecosystems recover and restore its capacity to capture carbon. But when tree planters are called in to do the job, Ms. DeGraff said they can sometimes be met by this deathly concoction of conditions.

But emerging technology provides alternatives. Where a human might feel unsafe, tree-planting drones can fly safely above.

In the past decade, British Columbia has experienced its three worst wildfire seasons. Ontario went through one of its largest fires in history in 2021 and burned well above its 10-year average, and Alberta experienced its second-worst wildfire season in terms of hectares burned in 2019. Climatologists and wildfire experts predict longer and more intense wildfire seasons in Canada’s future.

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Ms. DeGraff holds up the roots of a White Pine seedling stored at the camp.

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Boxes of baby Interior Douglas Fir seedlings are seen stored at a camp for tree planters in Celista, B.C., on May 12. (Aaron Hemens/The Globe and Mail)The Globe and Mail

On its own, a severely burned forest may be unable to recover and risks permanently changing to mostly shrubs or grasslands which, according to the Yale Carbon Containment Lab, don’t have the same carbon removal capacities. However, if reforestation projects are undertaken in the area two or three years after the fire, a forest’s essential ecosystems are more likely to be restored. Planting can also restore stability to the ground, helping with flood and landslide prevention.

But singed branches and scorched trunks can make the forest an unstable place where planters are at risk of being injured or killed by falling trees. John Innes, forest renewal B.C. chair in forest management and professor at the University of British Columbia, said the ash on the ground of these sites can also be dangerous for planters because it’s carcinogenic.

Toronto-based reforestation company Flash Forest is branding itself as a solution for recovery. Using drones equipped with artificial intelligence and mapping capabilities, its technology is designed to fly above a planting site and shoot specially designed seed pods into the ground. These pods are designed to nurture tree seedlings in the first few stages of their lives. By 2028, the company aims to have planted one billion trees.

Since its launch in 2019, the company has received multiple grants including $1.8-million from Emissions Reduction Alberta and $1.3-million from the federal government as part of its 2 Billion Trees commitment. This spring, the company has plans to plant more than one million trees while visiting wildfire sites such as White Rock Lake, B.C., and Nordegg, Alta.

The use of drones to plant trees has only increased in popularity in the past few years. But a tree can take hundreds of years to fully mature.

There are a limited number of studies on the success rate of using drones to grow trees. One study published in Remote Sensing journal in 2021 found only a 20-per-cent or less survival rate for a specific conifer species planted by another drone forestation company as part of a pilot project.

Flash Forest chief executive officer Bryce Jones told The Globe and Mail the company has a target goal of 1,400 surviving trees per hectare. He added that last year the company met or exceeded that goal in all of its projects but one.

“There can be mortality from heat domes, predation or trampling from wildlife but we also plant with a significant buffer to account for any losses,” Mr. Jones said in an e-mail.

Flash Forest would not disclose its exact survival rates, citing intellectual property concerns.

In a recent blog post, Flash Forest said it planned to begin its planting season this spring by reforesting the area burned in the White Rock Lake wildfire. Lodgepole pine, a tree species native to the area, take an average of 100 to 200 years to mature. Similarly, Ponderosa pine, another species common in the area, take 300 to 400 years to mature – meaning it could be hundreds of years until research can be done surveying the success rate of mature, drone-planted trees.

Flash Forest isn’t the only company attempting to fill in for human planters. AirSeed Technologies from Australia plans to plant 100 million seed pods a year by 2024 and BioCarbon Engineering from Britain plans to plant at least one billion trees a year using drones.

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Veteran tree planters Les Robinson, left, and Marcel Regamey at their tree planting living quarters at a camp in Celista, B.C., on May 12. (Aaron Hemens/The Globe and Mail)The Globe and Mail

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Planting gloves hang to dry outside of the living quarters of tree planters at a camp in Celista, B.C., on May 12. (Aaron Hemens/The Globe and Mail)The Globe and Mail

But even with these seemingly ambitious targets, John Betts, executive director of the Western Forestry Contractors’ Association, said these drones will only enhance the arduous work being done by human tree planters.

In British Columbia alone, Mr. Betts said 290 million seedlings will be planted by hand this year. At peak productivity, Mr. Betts said 120 trees are planted across the province every second for eight hours a day.

“I don’t think drones are a threat to our program,” Mr. Betts said. But “I think many of my contractors are already seeing where there might be applications for this kind of work.”

However, Mr. Betts said there are many nuances in the landscape that a skilled tree planter is trained to pick up on.

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Meghan Degraff, a tree planter and supervisor of forestry company All Star Silviculture, opens a box of White Pine seedlings stored at a camp for tree planters in Celista, B.C., on May 12. (Aaron Hemens/The Globe and Mail)The Globe and Mail

“It’s not all soil out there,” Mr. Betts said. Site selection is a crucial part of a tree planter’s job. He said planters have to consider factors like shade, soil type, soil moisture and how far apart each seedling is every time they put a seedling into the ground. The grid planters work within is extremely specific, Ms. DeGraff emphasized.

Prof. Innes said he’s heard of a few attempts made by drone-powered tree-planting companies that have failed because they haven’t taken these factors into account.

“There’s no point trying to compete with planters. But what they can do is complement the planters and get into sites where planters might be compromised,” Prof. Innes said.

However, the skilled workers Ms. DeGraff said are essential for this line of work are becoming increasingly hard to find. More companies embracing sustainable practices and moving away from planting monocultures means the work has become more specialized, Ms. DeGraff said.

That, and the gruelling nature of the job, are limiting the number of new hires.

“It’s harder and harder to find young kids now who want to work that hard,” Ms. DeGraff said. “They come and they tree plant and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, who could do this? This is crazy.’”

A lack of skilled labour and a gaping hole in forestry research in Canada, according to Prof. Innes, are two factors hurting the industry now. He said he’d like to see Canada continue to invest in developing technology to improve the state of forest research in Canada.

Prof. Innes, Mr. Betts and Ms. DeGraff all predict the presence of technology like drones will continue to grow in the future. But, they added, it will be a long time before we see a drone replace the role of a human planter. Plus, Mr. Betts said, there’s no desire from tree planters to step aside any time soon.

“Humans have a lot more fun getting the work done,” Mr. Betts said, “and to be honest with you, I’d rather plant trees than just swap batteries out of a drone all day.”

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