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Debris from a wildfire in Lytton, B.C., seen from Main Street on July 9, 2021.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

In the summer of 2017, Melanie Minnabarriet and her husband were at a cabin near Lillooet, B.C., when they heard on the radio that nearby Ashcroft was on fire.

A member of Bonaparte First Nation and now its natural-resources manager, Ms. Minnabarriet grew up in Ashcroft, a village in south-central British Columbia. She spent much of her childhood in nearby forests, hunting and harvesting. That day, she and her husband packed up and drove home, caked in smoke. Ms. Minnabarriet remembers feeling anxious.

It became known as the Elephant Hill fire, and went on to last 75 days and burn nearly 200,000 hectares of land – damage that left an indelible mark on the land but contributed to the emerging understanding of megafire consequences.

Six years later, Ms. Minnabarriet calls the land “unrecognizable.” What were once living pine and birch trees are now “burnt sticks.”

“You see a lot less wildlife. You don’t hear the birds singing in the trees. You don’t have the little critters running around everywhere,” she said.

B.C. has long had fires. But it hasn’t always had megafires – blazes that encompass hundreds of thousands of hectares and burn so hot in some places it kills the forest’s seed bank. As these events are expected to become more common, local communities and researchers are looking to understand what the ecological effects on the land will be.

So far, they’ve found that the damage varies from little harm to complete tree mortality, depending on the intensity of the fire. In some places that are already prone to drought, trees aren’t growing back.

The summer of 2003 was a landmark season in B.C. fire history, according to Lori Daniels, a forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia. More than 250,000 hectares burned, more than 10 times the average in the decade prior.

“We used to think of that as a big fire season,” Prof. Daniels said.

But in 2017, 1.22 million hectares burned. In 2018, it was 1.35 million hectares. In 2021 – the year when Lytton, B.C., burned to the ground – it was 860,000 hectares.

Ms. Minnabarriet has seen the fire’s cascading effects. She said pine and fir beetles have attacked the weak and newly dead trees, as they lack their normal defences. Floods are more common, since the vegetation that once absorbed snowmelt and rainfall no longer exists. Roads and fire guards built for fighting fire haven’t been removed, making the land more accessible to hunters. Burned stream-side habitat takes away shade, which warms the water in streams and tributaries that salmon swim through.

She is managing several postrestoration projects to restore creek banks, rebuild and expand coho salmon habitat and decommission and replant unused roads. In the meantime, she said she has noticed some soapberry plants and fir saplings return.

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An aerial view of fire-damaged trees near Lytton in June 2022.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The ecological effects of megafires were largely understudied in B.C. before the 2017 fire season, said Sarah Dickson-Hoyle, a postdoctoral scholar in the faculty of forestry at UBC. She said it was a wake-up call for the province and researchers.

Dr. Dickson-Hoyle is among those who have been monitoring Elephant Hill since the fire, attending to 100 sites where they count living trees and plants, as well as identify species.

“We look at the health of the forest,” she said.

Much of the land experienced a “high-severity burn,” where trees and foliage are killed atop the ground, and the fire has burned deep into the soil. These places have had a slow recovery, with fewer species regrowing, and sometimes certain plants taking over. This reduces biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and culturally relevant plants for Indigenous peoples.

“Unfortunately, that’s a lot of these fires that we’re seeing,” Dr. Dickson-Hoyle said.

And not only did the fire emit mass amounts of carbon dioxide, but the gas won’t be sequestered again over time without forest regrowth.

Prior to colonization and subsequent forestry laws, places such as Elephant Hill would have had frequent fires, but they would have been much less severe, clearing out dead plants and recycling nutrients. “It doesn’t kill the entire forest,” Dr. Dickson-Hoyle said.

Many of B.C.’s plants, insects and wildlife are adapted to these kinds of fires. Not only do they promote biodiversity, but they also reduce the fuels partly responsible for megafires. Indigenous nations, especially in the south of the province, managed forests with flame – for things like cultivating food and medicinal plants, and creating forage for wildlife.

“Those fires ended with European colonization and resettlement,” said Prof. Daniels at UBC.

In the past century, B.C. forests have changed a lot, making them much more flammable, according to Prof. Daniels. The province’s policy has been to suppress and eliminate fires, and it’s been good at it. Prof. Daniels said that from the 1970s to the early-mid 2000s, the B.C. wildfire service extinguished 94 per cent of fires before they grew to one hectare in size.

“So that means that in our lifetime … the only fires that we’ve been experiencing in British Columbia are the top 6 per cent of fires under the hottest, driest, windiest conditions that exceed modern technology in putting them out,” she said.

Climate change is causing hotter, drier and longer summers – and it is only predicted to get worse as the years go on.

But Prof. Daniels said she has seen some promising signs – after the 2017 fires, broadleaf trees have grown back in south-central B.C., and with needle-leaf trees such as Douglas fir, the fire didn’t kill the seed bank. However, she cautioned that the heat dome summer of 2021 wiped out many of these young needle-leaf saplings, both natural and planted.

Much of B.C.’s forests are also managed for timber. Large swaths are planted with monocultures of lodge-pole pine, reducing the biodiversity that supports ecosystem resilience, she said. Since the early 1980s, B.C. has sprayed its forests with glyphosate, a common herbicide, which can kill broad-leaf trees like aspen and birch – trees that have natural fire protection but not profitable timber.

In some areas after wildfire, there has been no forest regrowth at all. For example, nearly 20 years after the Barriere McLure fire of 2003, Prof. Daniels has noticed a change in the ecosystem.

“I’ve been through parts of that landscape that have not recovered, there’s not trees growing back, it’s concerted – or it seems to have reverted toward a grassland and shrubland ecosystem.”

She added, “That maybe is not so surprising given that with warmer, drier weather, grasses and shrubs are going to do better than trees.”

She said she isn’t worried about this shift, “as long as we have a healthy grassland and shrubland, with native species.”

But other experts are concerned about the loss of forest and the impact it will have on carbon sequestration. This increase in megafires means that there will be repeated fires, burning away seedlings and saplings and not allowing forests to regrow. Research shows 15 to 50 per cent of forests could be lost in western North America by 2100.

“Any tree body, that’s a heck of a lot of carbon that’s stored. Any grass body, it’s just minor,” said Karen Hodges, a biology professor at the UBC Okanagan campus.

In an e-mailed statement to The Globe and Mail, the B.C. Ministry of Forests said it has “ramped up” licensee and government reforestation programs since 2017 after three major fire years that have had “severe impact on timber supply and many non-timber resource values.”

The statement said this will continue for “a number of years until natural regeneration has reached a stage that makes planting no longer necessary.”