The forests that are burning across British Columbia are littered with millions of hectares of dead or dying trees that turn into volatile fuel for flames in conditions such as this year’s drought, experts say.
The situation has persisted despite recommendations stretching back more than a decade calling on provincial and local governments to clear the forests of debris.
“There’s no moisture in it anymore, because it’s dead – and when we get these drought conditions, this stuff is like a bomb going off,” said Bruce Blackwell, a North Vancouver-based forester and biologist who was a consultant on a provincial review of B.C.’s 2003 wildfire season.
To date, only a small fraction of forests have been treated for fuel suppression, according to Mr. Blackwell.
There are currently more than 500 wildfires burning across B.C., which has been in a province-wide state of emergency since last week. Thousands of people have either been ordered from their homes or warned to be ready to flee.
A wildfire that broke out in West Vancouver on Monday afternoon prompted the urgent evacuation of two homes. The blaze grew to about 120 by 60 feet, but firefighters were able to contain the blaze in about 90 minutes, said West Vancouver Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Bush.
Two homes that were in the immediate vicinity were evacuated as a precaution but residents were allowed back in a short time later.
While there are fires burning in almost every region of the province, the situation is most dire in British Columbia’s Interior.
Mr. Blackwell said those fires are burning through beetle kill – dead wood resulting from a pine-beetle infestation that swept through B.C.'s forests from about 1999 to 2015, leaving thousands of dead or dying trees in its wake.
Fuel build-up – the result of decades of forest-fire suppression as well as the pine-beetle outbreak – is a long-standing concern. The 2003 provincial report, authored by former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon, noted fuel build-up means that “there will be more significant and severe wildfires, and there will be more interface fires, unless action is taken.”
A more recent review of B.C.'s 2017 flood and wildfire season, released in May of this year, found about 78,000 hectares had been treated for fuel mitigation – less than 10 per cent of 800,000 hectares previously identified as moderate to high risk.
The latest report made 108 recommendations, including greater use of prescribed burning. Such controlled fires were once commonly used to manage fuel, but fell out of favour over concerns about smoke and safety, including the risk of fires getting out of control and health impacts.
The province in May said it would consider all of the recommendations and was already acting on some of them.
The province has allotted more than $81-million since 2004 to a fire-prevention program administered through the Union of B.C. Municipalities, a spokeswoman for the provincial Ministry of Forests said. In addition, this year’s budget set aside $50-million over three years for a new community fire-prevention program and more than $134-million has been allocated for wildfire risk reduction.
A February, 2018, report by the B.C. Auditor General found the government had not completed a comprehensive risk assessment and does not know the broader costs of wildfires to B.C.'s economy.
Neither the province nor industry are dedicating enough resources or support to wildfire management, said Lori Daniels, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia.
She would like to see more financial support for communities near forests and other unoccupied lands to reduce the risk and impact of wildfires.
Brian Simpson, former head of the BC Wildfire Management Branch and now a forestry consultant, said the province needs a fundamental shift in the way it manages its territory to better mitigate the wildfire danger, which will only increase in the coming years across the majority of B.C.
For instance, he said, projects such as new roads or pipelines should have to incorporate the existing wildfire risk into planning so that they might act as natural fire barriers, which could last decades.
“People often refer to this as the new norm. Well, what we’re seeing this year isn’t as bad as it’s going to get, and it’s bad enough.”
With files from Andrea Woo and Mike Hager