Wildfires in BC are getting bigger. Much bigger. The forest-industrial complex blames fire suppression. The evidence suggests large areas of fuel-laden clearcuts are changing fire behaviour.
A RECORD COMPILED BY BC GOVERNMENT SCIENTISTS since 1990 captures in cold, hard numbers the scale of the ecological apocalypse underway in BC’s Interior forests. The record shows that since 1990, the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by wildfires in BC has doubled every nine years.
For the nine years from 1990 to 1998, scientists estimated 52.3 million tonnes (megatonnes) of greenhouse gas emissions were released to the atmosphere by forest fires. From 1999 to 2007, that more than doubled to 120.9 megatonnes. Over the next 9-year period, ending with 2016, the total released doubled again, to 249.8 megatonnes.
In 2017, 1,353 fires burned 1.22 million hectares, including some very large fires, all in BC’s Interior: the 191,865-hectare Elephant Hill Fire, the 545,151-hectare Chilcotin Plateau Fire—which was actually the merging of 20 separate fires—and the 241,160-hectare Hanceville Fire, another merging of smaller fires into a mega-fire.
BC scientists estimated 176.6 megatonnes of greenhouse gases were released into the atmosphere by those 2017 fires.
The next year was even worse: 2,117 fires burned 1.36-million hectares. Scientists haven’t yet made public their estimate of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere for that year, but it will likely be close to 200 megatonnes.
Greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires in BC have doubled every nine years since 1990. The last 3 years suggest that rate of increase will continue.
Last year—2019—saw a cooler, wetter summer and a relief for wildfire fighters. Yet the first three years of the current 9-year interval have already released 75 percent of the 500 megatonnes needed to maintain the doubling of the carbon released every nine years.
All of the biggest fires, in both 2017 and 2018, occurred in areas where the impact of Mountain Pine Beetle infestation over the past 20 years has been most intense. The beetles have affected 16 million hectares of BC forests—an area more than five times that of Vancouver Island.
Large areas of the 2017 fires overlapped salvage clearcuts of beetle-killed trees. In a report on the impact of the 2017 fires, the Ministry of Forests noted that about 80 percent of the fires’ area occurred in forests “significantly impacted” by Mountain Pine Beetle. The four largest fires of 2018 also burned in areas damaged by beetle infestation.
The magnitude of the release makes provincial and municipal plans for reducing carbon emissions in BC appear functionally pointless—like trying to drain the Fraser River with a garden hose.
Can anything be done to slow or reverse the trend toward bigger wildfires? That would depend on what’s causing wildfires to be bigger and whether or not humans can reverse the cause.
Recently, the Vancouver Sun reported that two BC forestry scientists, Werner Kurz and Lori Daniels, are representing Canada in “a $1-million partnership between Canadian researchers and the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service to ‘de-escalate the devastating forest wildfires that are increasingly occurring due to climate change.’”
The Sun reporter, Randy Shore, interviewed Daniels, a professor of forestry at UBC, who told him: “We are paying a huge cost in carbon today because we were so good at putting out fires in the past.”
Daniels believes wildfires are getting bigger because of the build-up of fuel in forests, which Shore described as “fallen needles and dead branches.” If fire hadn’t been suppressed, those needles and dead branches would have been burned off by natural fire.
Daniels offered a solution: “What happens if we thin out the forest and reduce the stress on those trees competing for a limiting resource like soil moisture?...Will the trees left behind grow faster and sequester more carbon? There is lots of evidence that under some circumstances, that is the case.”
For such thinning to be effective at reducing fuel in the forest it would have to be removed. Daniels suggested the possible development of a new biomass economy: “If it is going to be burned, we should do that at high efficiency and displace fossil fuel with a form of sustainable energy. Lots of small communities are still reliant on fossil fuels, so these are linkages that we can make.”
The idea sounds eminently reasonable, doesn’t it? But what if it’s wrong? What if “fire suppression” is not at the heart of escalating wildfires? Do forest scientists ever get things wrong?
The forest-industrial complex—the forest-interested government agencies, industry, universities and media—that has led BC into the black-box carbon trap of exponentially-increasing emissions outlined above, is unable to hold itself accountable for the environmentally disastrous forestry practices it devised that have contributed disproportionately to a warmer climate. Its miscalculation of what was sustainable created giant clearcuts that shrivelled the forests’ ability to sequester carbon. That played a significant role in making winters too warm to kill the Mountain Pine Beetle, and that change was followed by widespread pine mortality, immense areas of salvage clearcuts, and now giant wildfires roaring through those same clearcuts.
Now, it appears, the forest-industrial complex is diverting our attention away from what’s actually happening on the ground. The accumulation of giant clearcuts has altered microclimates and left hundreds of millions of tonnes of fuel on the ground. And now it’s burning, easily ignited by lightning, and affecting fire behaviour.
A BC Wildfire Service air tanker tackles an aggressive wildfire in a clearcut
An August 2018 “incident update” by the BC Wildfire Service describes the “behaviour prediction” for a fire near the Baezaeko River west of Quesnel: “Fire activity will have the potential to challenge control lines; don’t let your guard down. Be aware of gusty winds and the effect on fire behaviour, if only for a short time. The slash blocks have more fuel loading than the standard slash fuel type, expect higher intensity. This higher intensity can cause fire whirls to develop; this would cause rapid fire growth and increased spotting potential.”
“Fire whirls” are like small tornados, formed by the rapid uplift of air in an intense fire. “Spotting” is the ability of fires to send out embers far ahead of a fire and start new fires. Wildfire Service incident updates commonly note the impact of logging slash in clearcuts that makes fires burn more intensely and dangerously.
Yet nowhere to be seen in the forest-industrial complex’s description of what needs to happen now is an examination of the ways in which a landscape increasingly dominated by very large clearcuts has changed the behaviour of fire in BC’s forests. Nowhere to be seen is the option of reducing the volume of timber cut in BC to allow the provincial forests’ carbon sequestration capacity to recover.
Unless you are delusionally optimistic, there’s no reason to believe that feeding tree parts to industrial burners will reduce the acceleration in the thermal destruction of BC’s forests. Once jobs are created to feed the burners, those bio-jobs will become the thing that must be protected at all costs. That way of thinking is what gave BC the beetle infestation in the first place.
The stated belief that the acceleration in wildfire emissions is due to past fire suppression appears destined to become one of the great, all-time dead-end ideas in BC’s short but dramatic history of ecosystem disruption.
Unless there is some real change in the fundamental factor driving this acceleration—the loss of BC forests’ carbon sequestration capacity—then between 2026 and 2034, the fifth nine-year interval in this exponential increase, BC forest fires will produce a total of 1,000 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions, or an average of 110 megatonnes per year. The Mountain Pine Beetle infestation affected 16 million hectares of BC forests. Only a small fraction of these have burned, so there’s a high risk of more and bigger fires in the coming years.
An aside to those folks who might think the scientists are purposely overestimating emissions from wildfires in order to justify amping up industrialization of forests: the estimate for 2017 works out to about 50 tonnes of forest carbon per hectare, which is less than what would be left on the ground after an Interior clearcut.
Let’s put the magnitude of the wildfire emissions problem in perspective. BC’s carbon emissions—from all sources except forest-related emissions—totalled 64 megatonnes in 2017. CleanBC, the provincial government’s emissions reduction plan, has so far been able to identify, on paper, just 19 megatonnes of annual reductions it hopes will happen by 2030. LNG Canada at Kitimat will trigger 9 megatonnes. Teck Resources’ Frontier oil sands project was going to produce 4 megatonnes. The City of Victoria is targetting about 0.390 megatonnes through its climate action plan.
Compare those drops in the bucket to the 110 megatonnes of annual emissions from forest fires alone that now seem certain to be in our near future. Other net emissions—the loss of forest carbon sequestration capacity and the premature decay of forest carbon initiated by harvesting—caused by BC’s forest industry and tallied in Defusing BC’s big, bad carbon bomb in our last edition—are upwards of 190 megatonnes each year.
It’s the Province’s official position that it can’t do anything about any of these forest-industry-caused emissions. Although the exponential growth in emissions from wildfires outlined above appears in the British Columbia Provincial Greenhouse Gas Inventory, as do other emissions related to BC’s forest industry, they are not counted in BC like your car’s tailpipe emissions. Is that because they don’t impact climate stability? No, it’s because the Province claims nothing can be done about these net emissions.
In the Province’s Methodology Book for the British Columbia Provincial Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the authors state that emissions from forest fires “are more volatile and subject to natural factors outside of direct human control and so are not reported as part of BC GHG emissions totals…”
Yet it has become an article of faith of the forest-industrial complex that historical fire suppression by humans is the primary cause of big fires, and big fires mean higher emissions. This official confusion is disconcerting and demands a ground-truthing expedition.
FOLLOWING THE FIRES OF 2017, which included the 191,865-hectare Elephant Hill Fire, the Ministry of Forests’ Pat Byrne, district manager of the 100-Mile House Natural Resource District, told the 100-Mile Free Press in July 2018: “Much of the area that was burned by both the Gustafsen and Elephant Hill fires, they burned over fire-dependent ecosystems…These ecosystems rely on fires as much as the soil and the air and the water they get. It’s how they evolve…The forest relies on a 10 to 15 year fire cycle to thin out the vegetation and create a more open forest…Removing fire from the landscape resulted in a dense forest and created conditions where fire could burn hotter and more aggressively than a natural setting would have ever allowed.”
Byrne told the Free Press: “You’ve got a fire-dependent ecosystem and you exclude fire from it. What do you expect is going to happen?”
The usual refutation of the “fire suppression causes big fires” belief is that “The Big Burn” of 1910 in Idaho, Montana, Washington and BC, occurred before the era of fire suppression had begun. The Big Burn, also known as “The Great Fire,” “The Devil’s Broom,” and “The Big Blow-up,” burned through 1.2 million hectares, which just happens to be about what was burned in BC in 2017.
The Ministry of Forests’ own records show that four of the ten largest fires (in area) in BC’s recorded history occurred before the era of fire suppression began.
If big, aggressive fires occurred before aircraft were able to bomb fires with water and fire retardant, how valid is the forest-industrial complex’s claim that “fire suppression” is the main cause for today’s big fires?
There’s even more-convincing evidence that the fire-suppression-causes-big-fires narrative may be a big smoke screen blown into the talkosphere so the forest industry can cut more trees.
One of the tools that’s available today that allows us to ground-truth the claims of the forest-industrial complex—to actually see what wildfires are burning—is satellite photography. We can compare aerial images taken before a fire with images taken afterward to see what was burned, and how completely it burned.
Satellite photography of the area burned by the Elephant Hill Fire north of Arrowrock Provincial Park shows that much of the area had been severely modified in the last 20 years (below). At the time of the fire, it was mostly regrowth in clearcuts and unplanted clearcuts. In this area there was little “dense forest” left to burn. On Ministry of Forests maps of the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation, this area is shown as having a 71 to 100 percent rate of “kill” of lodgepole pine, hence the widespread clearcuts left by salvage logging.
(Click image to enlarge) This part of the Elephant Hill Fire, according to Ministry of Forests’ mapping of the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation, had been heavily impacted by beetle kill. Earlier satellite images, taken after the salvage logging but before the fire, show some areas with regrowth and other areas with none. Only the oldest regrowth survived the 2017 fire. Many thousands of square kilometers of former lodgepole pine forest, killed by beetles and salvaged, were burned in 2017 and 2018. The beetle infestation has affected 16,000,000 hectares of BC forest, only a small fraction of which has been burned by 2020.
The area shown above is typical of the juxtaposition of giant fires and massive clearcuts that are transforming BC’s interior forests into a wasteland. The density of mature forest has been reduced to thin ribbons of dark green separating seemingly endless burned-over clearcuts. Only the roads and wetlands are fireproof.
Satellite imagery allows us to see, close-up, the fate of specific features engulfed by the fires. The images below show one such area burned by the Elephant Hill Fire. The first image below was taken about 2010. It shows clearcuts that have been partially replanted. Note the light green regrowth, the unplanted areas and the extent of more mature trees (dark green). Note the large piles of slash piled close to the roads. After this image was taken, more logging took place before the Elephant Hill Fire burned this area in 2017.
Compare that image with the photo below. This satellite image was made in 2019, about two years after the Elephant Hill Fire. Note that most of the regrowth in the clearcut has been killed or damaged. Much of the unplanted area of the clearcut has burned (light gray areas). Some of the mature trees that were left around the clearcuts have survived while others were killed by the fire. The slash piles are now ash piles. These features are typical of BC’s biggest wildfires in the Interior.
Click image to enlarge
The satellite photography also shows that areas where extensive mechanical thinning had taken place survived the fire in some places but were incinerated in others. Corridor thinning mimics, to some extent, natural fire’s ability to open up a forest stand, but it’s an interim stage that will lead to a clearcut in the not-too-distant future. An extensive east-west belt of such thinning running across the entire pathway of the Elephant Hill Fire north of Loon Lake did not prevent the fire from moving northwards.
The same mixed fire-survival performance of extensive thinning efforts can be found in satellite photography of the Hanceville Fire.
(The most current satellite photography can be found at inaturalist.org.)
The satellite photography shows that slash, left in logged-over areas, was an important factor in the eventual size of the Elephant Hill Fire. Equally evident from the satellite photography is that any plantation regrowth younger than about 20 years has been largely wiped out.
Satellite photography of the huge areas burned by the Hanceville and Plateau fires of 2017 shows the same general outcomes: vast areas of clearcuts burned clean with the small patches of adjacent, mature forest that had been left between clearcuts moderately to severely damaged.
The 16 million hectares of BC forest that have been impacted by the beetle infestation, combined with decades of extensive clearcutting of live conifer forests, has created an apocalyptic landscape in BC’s interior forests. Ministry of Forests’ reports on the 2017 and 2018 fires show large areas of the Interior—entire forest districts—where the “cumulative percentage of merchantable forest volume killed since 1999” is “greater than 45 percent.” This description, of course, doesn’t include the loss before 1999.
The “killing” is the result of the logging of live trees, beetle infestation and wildfires. The result is a vast open area in the Interior that is littered with hundreds of millions of tonnes of tree parts in various stages of decay, all of it potential fuel for wildfires, just waiting for ignition. Although much of this area hasn’t been replanted, that which has been is also, under the right conditions, potent fuel requiring only ignition.
IN BC, THE CAUSE OF IGNITION for every wildfire is determined and recorded by the BC Wildfire Service, and so is each fire’s physical size. These records end up in the National Forestry Database. They show us that between 1990 and 1998, 59 percent of the area burned by wildfires in BC was attributed to fires ignited by lightning. Over the next nine-year period that rose to 81 percent. In the nine-year period ending with 2016, it rose to 85 percent. So lightning has become the overwhelming source of ignition of large wildfires in BC.
The records also show that while the total area burned as a result of lightning ignition has risen, the actual number of forest fires started by lightning has fallen. Between 1990 and 1998, there were 12,158 fires ignited by lightning. During the next 9-year interval, that fell to 8,837 fires. That was followed by 9,339 fires ignited by lightning in the 9-year interval ending with 2016.
The growth in the area burned by wildfires ignited by lightning isn’t the result of more lightning strikes hitting the forest—a factor that would be beyond human control.
Now here’s the most critically important point in this story: Scientific research shows lightning is more likely to start a fire if it hits a harvested area than if it hits a forested area.
Back in 2009, forest research scientists Meg Krawchuk and Steve Cumming published the results of an 8-year study of lightning ignition in 60,000 square kilometers of boreal forest in Alberta. They found that wildfires started by lightning ignition “increased in landscapes with more area harvested.” Because of the physical nature of the fuel in a “harvested area”—its dryness, smaller size, etc—it is more readily ignited by lightning than the fuel in an undisturbed stand of trees.
Krawchuk and Cumming also noted: “In addition to the fine fuels and slash remaining after forest harvest, post-disturbance regeneration might also contribute to flammability.”
The forest-industrial complex has, it would seem, created an immense area in the Interior of BC that is a crude incendiary device—like a Molotov cocktail—that only needs the right conditions of temperature, humidity and a bolt of lightning to burst into flames.
The satellite imagery of BC’s recent big fires certainly confirms Krawchuk’s and Cumming’s speculation about the flammability of regrowth in clearcuts. In BC’s dry Interior forests, those plantations act like kindling and, in areas where fires burned in 2017, there’s now little remaining of 20 to 25 years of a build-up of kindling—or, as the forest-industrial complex calls it: “The Forests for Tomorrow.”
Let me summarize.
First, we know from National Forestry Database records that lightning strikes are igniting fewer fires, but the fires ignited by lightning are becoming larger.
Second, we know from Ministry of Forests records and satellite photography that the cumulative area of harvested forest in BC’s Interior has grown very significantly in the last 20 years, and in many areas exceeds the amount of forested land.
Third, we know that the big fires in BC’s Interior in 2017 all involved heavily harvested areas where either beetle-killed or live trees had been removed.
Last, scientists have found that the more a landscape is harvested, the more lighting ignition occurs, and that’s because harvested areas have fuel on the ground that is more ignitable than standing forest.
These facts strongly suggest that it’s the growing expanse of fuel-laden clearcuts that are producing larger fires.
Climate change is no doubt making the fuel drier and more ignitable, and perhaps adding a little strength to winds that fan the fires. But it’s also possible that vast areas of clearcuts are creating those same effects all by themselves. Removal of the tree canopy allows the sun to heat the forest floor more readily, which reduces humidity and raises temperature. Removal of trees allows wind speed at forest-floor level to be higher in clearcuts than would be the case in an expanse of mature forest. Leaving 40 to 60 percent of the biomass of the forest in a clearcut creates a huge fuel load that is apparently readily ignitable by lightning and easily fanned by wind.
Focus has obtained numerous photographs taken from fire-spotter aircraft, including those used in this story, that depict fires that apparently started in clearcuts, or clearcuts engulfed in flames. So there’s good evidence on the ground that this is happening. But this version of what’s happening is definitely not the narrative that is coming from the scientists whose role it is to keep timber flowing from the forests to the mills.
The forest-industrial complex is pointing its collective finger at drier conditions created by climate change, and too dense fuel in the forest as a result of fire suppression. Its favoured solution appears to be to go into the forest and remove more trees.
It’s possible that the forest-industrial complex is suffering from the cognitive bias known as the law of the instrument: Give a man a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.
CONSIDER THE MAGNITUDE OF THE PROBLEM: In 1997, BC’s 60 million hectares of forests were able to sequester the equivalent of 103 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Wildfires were emitting an average of 6 megatonnes each year.
Twenty-three years latter, BC still has 60 million hectares of potential forestland, but has lost those 103 megatonnes of sequestration capacity. Wildfires are now emitting, on average, 58 megatonnes per year.
Those two changes amount to a net increase of 155 megatonnes per year in emissions related to our provincial forests. That doesn’t include the 88 megatonnes of emissions that we must attribute to the premature decay of wood that will result from harvesting trees for wood products each year.
The prognosis is bad. Going in the same direction, a further increase in the industrial use of forests by mining them for bio-energy will, if the past is any predictor of the future, just make things worse.
As I pointed out last edition, the lowest-hanging fruit for BC in mitigating the damage being done to climate stability by its forestry practices is to end the export of raw logs, most of which are cut from coastal forests. If the Province banned raw log exports and reduced the annual allowable cut by 6.5 million cubic metres, 11 megatonnes of annual carbon emissions would be eliminated.
We previously estimated that would impact 1,650 jobs. In a future low-carbon economy (assuming that’s where we are going), there would be no possible justification for allowing 1,650 jobs to produce 11 megatonnes of net emissions. Instead, the forest-industrial complex needs to start redirecting resources to jobs that don’t destroy forests. It needs to reinvent itself into an agency that can bring the forest back to its former health and capabilities.
As it ponders its future, perhaps the forest-industrial complex ought to take to heart the words of Aldo Leopold, the American author, philosopher, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist, and environmentalist: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus. He is working with a group of scientists, journalists and citizens to explore the potential for conserving selected BC forests for carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation and short-distance tourism potential. He welcomes your feedback.