Modern forestry practices may be partly to blame for North American wildfire crisis
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Although forest fires have become somewhat of a symbol around the world for the destructive effects of climate change, many of Western Canada´s forestry experts are pointing out that while climate change makes fires more common, it is poor forestry management that is helping to make them more destructive.
In an article in the Canadian National Post, writer Tristin Hopper writes that while climate change may be trigger to make the situation as explosive as it has become, there are things which could be done in terms of managing the forests that could mitigate the wildfire situation - regardless of rising global temperatures.
Climate change makes it worse - but too much fuel creates the conditions for fire
“Even if we were able to turn back the dial on climate change we would still have wildfires that are severe and would burn people’s houses down,” said Jesse Zeman, director of fish and wildlife restoration with the B.C. Wildlife Federation to the National Post.
“Climate change just makes everything worse.”, he adds.
It´s the added fuel load building up in the forests that provides the conditions for an explosive forest fire. With the more water retaining old growth forests largely gone, combined with environmental attempts to save fallen trees as breeding grounds for bugs and birds, the forests are getting drier and more flammable.
“We’re learning that by protecting our forests we’re really just building a bigger bomb,” said Zeman.
Prescribed burns could be the solution
Long before the arrival of Europeans to what is now British Columbia, (a province in Western Canada) many Indigenous groups practiced prescribed burns (also called Back Fire or Slash Burning - a controversial practice with is currently coming back as a standard practice in some jurisdictions around the world.
The practice essentially means burning off the underbrush and old, dead wood during times of the year when it is safe to do so. The controversy of the practice is largely based on the notion that the practice itself could spark forest fires. There are also some environmental concerns, where the fear is that slash burning may damage the breeding grounds for insects and small animals. Indigenous tribes have, according to their own oral history, practiced slash burning for thousands of years in Canada and the US. There have also been examples of prescribed burns performed by other indigenous groups in other parts of the world.
In the summer of 2021, a research paper from the University of British Columbia selected a stand of old-growth forest outside Williams Lake, B.C. One of the scientific discoveries was that before the arrival of Europeans, fires burned through the area roughly every 10 to 30 years, and were usually of medium severity. Nowadays, modern fire suppression ensures that the same kind of forest will typically go 70 to 180 years without a burn, which leads to a much more severe fire when it does happen.
“In absence of low- to moderate-severity fires, contemporary forests are dense with closed canopies that are vulnerable to high-severity fire,” wrote researchers.
However, there may be deeper and far more controversial issues at stake for the forest industry. In an article on the Vancouver Island news portal Focusonvictoria.ca, writer David Broadland refers to a Oregon court case in 2019 which revealed that" clearcut logging, followed by replanting, creates fuel conditions that make fires easier to ignite and harder to control".
The Oregon testimony came in connection to when a land conservation organization, Oregon Wild, filed a lawsuit against the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for failing to disclose to what degree logging on public land near an Oregon community would increase the risk and severity of forest fires.
"The Oregon case included written testimony from a BLM fuels specialist, provided under oath, that stated that logging and plantations increase forest fire hazard. Those two fuel conditions make a fire easier to ignite and harder to control", states the article.
While the Fire Hazard Rating for a forest is not necessarily defined by the moisture content of the fuel, the dryness of a clearcut (and the planted trees that grow afterwards) has a large influence on the speed with which fire can spread.
Clearcutting may cause wildfire problems for longer time than previously thought
"Clearcutting exposes the land to the full strength of the sun, evaporating ground moisture and lowering humidity, important factors driving increased fire size and severity", states the writer. .
BC forester Herb Hammond argues that “clearcuts are clear culprits for heating up and drying out not only the immediate area where they occur, but also the surrounding landscape. They change local and regional weather patterns, and turn former heterogeneous, ecologically resilient stands and landscapes into homogeneous, ecologically vulnerable stands and landscapes. Their vulnerability is well documented in both the rise of insect epidemics, which clearcuts are allegedly meant to suppress, along with wildfire risk.”
The drier conditions caused by the widespread use of clearcut logging in BC will persist far longer than the BLM fuel specialist’s predicted “10 to 40 years” of higher fire hazard, as Hammond explains:
“Forests, particularly as they grow older, conserve water in large part due to complex, multi-layer canopies, and overall composition and structure that are all geared to slowing the movement of water through the forest, while filtering and storing water at the same time. Clearcuts, on the other hand, expose the land to rapid water loss. After a clearcut in montane Interior forests, 150 to 200 years of natural stand development are necessary to get back to something close to the level of water conservation provided by intact, natural old forests. If one takes into account the development of decayed fallen trees that are needed to store and filter water, that could be doubled to 300 to 400 years. Most of these vital fallen tree structures get destroyed in high-production, mechanized clearcutting.”