For many of us, the effects of wildfire are felt the most acutely during the hot and dry summer months of wildfire season. This is the time when the impacts can be seen, felt, and heard all around us. We need to look no further than September 2020 when the air quality in Vancouver was ranked among the poorest in the world due to smoke travelling north from out-of-control fires in California, Oregon, and Washington.
It’s human nature to view these as discrete events. Once the impacts are no longer part of our daily lives the cause vanishes from our mind’s eye. But let’s ask ourselves, what happens after the immediate threat is gone? How do people, communities, and the forests themselves recover?
At the outset of the Fire Followers project, my project partner Megan and I set out on a week-long road trip across southern British Columbia. Roughly following a plan that would take us through the regions where we grew up and still have community connections—Osoyoos, Moyie, Cranbrook, Kamloops—our goal was to see as many wildfire areas as possible, and speak to as many people as possible. Driving east from Vancouver, our first destination was my hometown of Osoyoos where my family has lived for the last 80 years. I feel a deep emotional and community connection to the people and the land in the area. For anyone who has visited Osoyoos, there is that special moment when you round the last corners, descending from the turnoff to Mt. Kobau, through the Richter Pass when Osoyoos finally comes into view. Clusters of houses surround the north and south sections of the lake that dominates the valley floor. Green vineyards sprawl in neat lines over the contours of the land, contrasted against the surrounding desert landscape for which the area is so well known. The first time I rounded that corner after the most recent wildfire in the area, instead of being greeted with the beautiful golden grasses that usually cover the hills, everything was black. It was so shocking and overwhelming that even as I write this I find it difficult to contain my emotion.
Moving forward with the intention of curiosity and exploration, Megan and I took the first steps on our journey, on the lookout for signs of recent fire and regrowth. We took a single road from Highway 3 winding up into the hills of the Kilpoola community where it turns from pavement to dirt before ending at the private driveways to a few properties. At that dead end, we were greeted with a surprise. A long-time resident of the area and personal friend of mine was tending to her garden. We received a warm welcome and once we explained what we were up to, she was more than happy to relate her own story. (to protect her privacy, her name is not included here)
My friend’s house backs onto a steep upward slope. She shared how only a few years before, the forest directly behind her house was dense and lush with foliage. For many years she was hesitant to clear any of that forest understory for fear that it would take away the beauty there. There was a false sense of security that clearing the area would have little impact on the behaviours of wildfire as fire generally moves uphill. The Okanagan Valley however is known for its strong and quickly changing winds, especially during the hot and dry summer months. In 2015, during the most recent fire to threaten her home, those winds pushed the fire unexpectedly in her direction, the maple saplings nearby acting like wicks for the flames to quickly spread. A stroke of luck kept the fire from reaching her home, but it was enough to spur her into action.
We spoke to my friend in June of 2018, she had been clearing the underbrush on her property for few years, beginning after this most recent burn. In contrast, her neighbours had been clearing their underbrush for at least 20 years. Recruiting the help of some neighbours and their chainsaws to remove the bigger pieces of fuel, she set about the hard work of clearing the foliage lower to the ground, depriving future fires of easy fuel.
What happened next was the unexpected beauty that unfolded as a reward for all the hard work. A side effect of clearing the forest that wasn’t anticipated was the visual transformation of the forest floor. The following spring my friend was rewarded with what can only be described as something out of a fairy tale—a picturesquely carpeted forest floor, alive with flowers and colour. Starting directly after the snow melt, anywhere that the sunlight could filter through the now more open forest canopy, the first flowers of spring, white star-shaped spring beauties began to bloom. Crawling up the mountain side, followed closely by the richest of yellow buttercups, and after that tall purple mountain lupine. As she described the beauty of the flowers, I was certain that what she had just told us was going to have an impact on our project.
To learn more about community involvement and impact, I reached out to the Executive Director of the Forest Enhancement Society of British Columbia (FESBC), Steve Kozuki. He shared with me his story not only as a member of FESBC but as a citizen and evacuee of Williams Lake when, in 2017, a wildfire drove over 40,000 people from their homes. He was fortunate to have another place to live. For many in the evacuee centres, this was not the case. People without alternate housing in the area, who lost their jobs as a result of the fire, were forced to find work elsewhere. However, once the danger subsided in Williams Lake many of these evacuees never came back to the community, resulting in a loss of front-line and retail workers in the city.
The FESBC funds community projects with the goal of enhancing forest stewardship in BC. One of the prongs of doing this is funding projects to prevent and mitigate the impacts of forest fires. At the time of my interview with Kozuki in 2018, there had been five rounds of proposal intakes. Kozuki shares that applicants can be almost anyone - community groups and organizations, municipalities, consultants, forest tenure holders, forestry companies. Proposals are evaluated for technical merit and eligibility. Funding is then awarded to successful applicants to execute their projects. At the time of our conversation, they had been able to fund 100% of the projects that met the technical merit and eligibility requirements.
“Initially, three years ago, there surprisingly wasn’t a lot of interest,” Kozuki said. “There’s a big sense of anxiety right after it [a forest fire] happens but it’s only more recently that we’ve noticed a big uptick in interest from communities throughout BC.” His theory, which is just speculation based on his experience, is that only now are some communities and citizens becoming aware of the risks.
The assistance that the FESBC provides to program applicants can be divided into two broad components. The first is assisting with the recovery of the economic values of the land base, which is primarily reforestation. The second is the reintroduction of fire as a tool for preventative wildfire risk reduction. “We fund the treatment of a forest, of fuel reduction. From a wildfire perspective, this does a number of things. It reduces the amount of fuel. With less fuel, there’s less heat. Less heat means there’s a smaller likelihood for [the fire] to destroy buildings, residential, escape, and supply routes. Reducing fuel reduces heat, which reduces intensity,” Kozuki explains.
“If the fire burns across the ground, firefighters have a better chance of controlling the fire. A crown fire, once the fires get to the treetops that’s when you get the big fire storms; you evacuate all personnel, it’s just too dangerous.”
Once the fuel load in the forest is lower, it’s possible to safely reintroduce fire via controlled burns. As compared to wildfire, controlled burns are light, low-impact fires that are beneficial for the habitat and the ecosystem. “There are some areas where the wildfire burns so hot, it sterilizes the soil. It might not recover for thousands of years,” Kozuki says.
Kozuki thinks it’s going to be interesting over the next little while, watching what is happening in the rural communities. Some, like Mt. Baldy—which we talk more about below—are very receptive to protecting their mountain resort. “However, one of the problems in forestry is that once the crisis of fire disappears, the smoke clears, and the public forgets. On a beautiful blue-sky day in the spring, forest fires are the furthest thing from their minds.” Even in Williams Lake, Kozuki describes the experience of ministry employees who do outreach in areas with interface properties. The purpose of the outreach is to discuss risk and fuel management treatment plans with land-owners. Surprisingly, in some situations land-owners still don’t think they need to take action or think that they are at risk. They don’t realize that ignoring the problem isn’t an option any more. “It’s as much of a political and a social challenge more than a scientific challenge. We know what needs to be done but the public resistance is a problem.”
One project funded by the FESBC was a fire break project at Mt. Baldy near Osoyoos. Baldy Mountain Resort is privately held, separate from the Strata that manages the small village of about 70 cabins. Andy Foster, the general manager of Baldy Mountain Resort during the first break project spoke via telephone in 2018. He shared the challenges he faced coming into the project with a short lead time, and how he worked with local community groups to enhance public support for the project.
The project was initiated by a group of locals with prior knowledge and experience in forestry and fire suppression. They brought the idea forward to the [previous] general manager of Baldy Mountain Resort and applied for the FESBC grant. It was awarded just before Andy joined the team. “It was a lengthy process to get the project initiated and going,” Andy said. “We had to extend the original timeline to allow for that process to happen.”
One reason for the delay was the relatively small environmental window of opportunity - this is the time when the conditions are right to safely complete the work. At 1,726 meters above sea level at the parking lot and 2,310 meters at the summit area, Mt. Baldy usually gets three to four months of summer weather. When Andy came on board there was still a lot of planning to ensure a proper prescription for the land. That prescription had to be approved by the provincial government, the Osoyoos Indian Band, and the Strata owners of the village at Mt. Baldy. Then there was the hurdle of finding the contractors with the experience to take the approach in the style required by the project.
The number one goal of the project was to protect the community of cabins in the event of a wildfire. The cabin owners had a right to be concerned as there were several fires in recent years that came too close for comfort. In 2015, several wildfires raged in the area, cutting off evacuation routes for community members on all sides. To the east was a wildfire that destroyed 30 homes in Rock Creek and Westbridge, burning 4,500 hectares in total. Just 30 kilometers away via highway—shorter as the crow flies—and knowing how quickly fire burns, this was enough for some residents to take action.
I grew up skiing at Mt. Baldy and still have many local connections. By the time Andy and I spoke, I had already heard several opinions on the fire break project from cabin owners. Some were mixed, but mostly the community was positive and welcoming of the protective measures. I asked him what kind of reactions he’d had from community members about the project. “There’s people in the community that already have that awareness and have taken steps from the Fire Smart initiative,” Andy said. “There was no negativity given to us on that point whatsoever. There was some concern about the noise of the construction as people that live up there are there for the peace and quiet.” He also shared that they applied for a Fire Smart grant to help with public education about the project. “This is a message we have heard echoed throughout the project, that
public education and buy-in is a huge factor in enabling and ensuring success for these kinds of projects. This was one of the main motivators for our project.”
Once they spoke to the public about the process and what to expect, it went a long way in reassuring the community. Communicating the tangible benefits for residents helped too. The fire break would protect their cabins, in some cases people’s primary dwellings, protect their investment, and put their minds at ease should another fire happen in the area.
To bring the focus of our conversation back around to one of the core questions of the Fire Followers project, I asked Andy about expectations in terms of forest regrowth for the fire break areas. He said that while it was part of the process to consider silviculture during the project plan, they are still a few years away from seeing what might happen. They plan to monitor and see what regrowth happens naturally, what types of trees they get. The resort organization is also keen at the idea of planting some new trees to get some carbon credits and to plant varieties that aren’t as combustible. There is going to be another assessment five years after the project to evaluate the progress.
The initial prescription was for 89 hectares of land in total and the number of trees to be thinned was prescribed by acre. There were different targets for different areas. Part of the prescription was to leave some larger trees but to also make sure those trees weren’t left standing alone in the wind. From the beginning, the people responsible for writing the prescription couldn’t predict exactly how the forest would develop in the future. They started with a small sample based on what they believed was going to happen in the area, with the attitude of waiting and seeing, then adjusting as things progressed. That was the goal of the person who wrote the prescription—to adjust as things developed. “It was very much a living process as we went through,” said Andy.
When we were getting ready to publish this essay for the Fire Followers project at the Beaty Museum, I reached out to Steve Kozuki at the FESBC to see what he’d been up to in the last few years. He was pleased to share that in the three years since we spoke the FESBC has helped 37, 26, and 42 higher-risk communities reduce their wildfire risk in 2019, 2020, and 2021 respectively (2021 number is an estimate). Additionally, the number of trees planted by the FESBC in forests damaged by wildfire was 10 million, 29 million, and 33 million in 2019, 2020, and 2021 respectively (2021 number is an estimate). A detailed 2021 Accomplishments report can be found on the FESBC website here.