Burning Questions: The quest to protect B.C.’s woodlands from climate change

There's plenty we can do to make our timber supply and the communities that depend on it more resilient to catastrophic blazes, say foresters and others on the front lines.

Credit: Kari Medig

Harrop-Procter Community Forest manager Erik Leslie sees first-hand the effects of cliamte change

There’s plenty we can do to make our timber supply and the communities that depend on it more resilient to catastrophic blazes, say foresters and others on the front lines

Erik Leslie remembers walking through the woods along the west arm of Kootenay Lake in July 2017 and feeling the snap and pop of dry brush underfoot.

“We had a wet fall, winter and spring, and then we didn’t get a drop of rain after June 15 until mid-August,” recalls Leslie, manager of the 11,300-hectare Harrop-Procter Community Forest near Nelson.

At the time, he was halfway through implementation of a five-year pioneering climate change adaptive forest management strategy that emerged from the West Kootenay Climate Vulnerability and Resilience Project, a provincial government study of climate change impacts on the region.

Of the three climate models the researchers used to forecast conditions, even the most optimistic scenario showed that by 2050, summers will be between 3 and 7 C warmer and 30-percent drier, resulting in a threefold increase in forest area burned on average. The study served as a call to action for forest management professionals like Leslie.

The Harrop-Procter initiative is meant to be a climate change adaptation blueprint for land managers. Largely funded by the Columbia Basin Trust, a non-profit that supports economic, environmental and social projects in the Columbia River region, it includes a range of forward-thinking forest management adaptations. Among them: forest fire fuel reduction, fire guard development, and replanting cut and burned areas with a mix of more fire-resistant species like Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and even deciduous trees with little commercial value, such as trembling aspen.

Then on July 27, 2017, after six weeks of rainless, hot, drought-like conditions, lightning struck the Harrop-Procter watershed, putting the 600 residents of this ferry-access-only community on edge. “All of a sudden I was thrust into the frontlines of fire suppression,” says Leslie, who would spend two months fighting the resulting blaze. “It was like we were in the crosshairs of climate change.”

By the end of September, a quarter of the watershed had gone up in flames in an inferno that consumed 3,000 hectares of forest. Similar scenes played out across B.C., from the Kootenays to Williams Lake. The 2017 fire season set new records, costing the province more than $500 million in suppression efforts and some 1.2 million hectares of burned forest and grasslands.

Then came 2018, another record-breaking season that swept across the province like a runaway train. By late August of that year, fires had consumed almost 1.3 million hectares, while more than 500 continued to burn. At times, Prince George, Port Alberni and other communities endured air quality that rivalled Beijing’s on a bad day.

Credit: Bonnie Grenon/Throughout Time Photography

West Fraser Timber’s Jeff Mycock stands in a healthy logged forest, which combines open pockets with trees left growing around them

Fighting fire with fire

The obvious takeaway from these back-to-back devastating seasons is that B.C. faces a future of increased forest fire frequency and intensity. But a growing number of land managers and foresters are starting to look beyond that truism by calling out another uncomfortable truth: conventional forestry has not only compounded the risk of forest fires, it also isn’t nearly dynamic enough to address climate change’s toll on forest health.

“The question is, how are we managing our forests in light of climate change? I really don’t think we’re ahead of the game on this,” says Jeff Mycock, chief forester for B.C. operations with West Fraser Timber Co.

B.C.’s biggest forestry company by revenue, West Fraser Timber employs more than 3,200 people in the province and owns close to 50 mills and plants throughout North America, including nine in the Cariboo that were directly hit by the 2017 and 2018 forest fire storms. “We are looking for ways to create more stability and resiliency in the forest resource and less wobble in the natural disturbance wheel,” Mycock says.

The fire season of 2017 caused a major wobble. Roughly 1 million hectares of forest were impacted in the Cariboo region, which includes the Quesnel, Williams Lake and 100 Mile House timber supply areas (TSAs). The annual allowable cut (AAC) in the Quesnel TSA will drop from its current 2.6 million cubic metres to 1.45 million in the next few years, according to an analysis by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.

The B.C. government is still assessing losses from the 2018 season, but it estimates that as much as 300,000 hectares of the provincial timber harvesting land base could be affected, with undetermined impacts on the AAC.

That’s why Quesnel-based Mycock’s immediate concern post-fire was keeping mills supplied with timber. West Fraser has struggled to expedite recovery of fire-damaged wood, he says, largely thanks to the unprecedented scale of the 2017 fires. The even larger burned area from 2018 has underscored the need to act fast to “change our management paradigm across all aspects of fire management, from preparedness to recovery,” Mycock explains.

He has bigger-picture concerns these days, though. A lack of dynamic landscape silviculture regimes and decades of fire suppression in forest ecosystems that are naturally dependent on fire, combined with a lack of controlled burning in forest management practices, have resulted in an unnatural landscape susceptible to disease, pests and catastrophic high-intensity burns.

For example, close to West Fraser’s core base of operations, the 1996 Cariboo-Chilcotin Regional Land Use Plan designated about 460,000 hectares of Interior Douglas fir forest to be managed for mule deer winter range, leading to a harvesting reduction of as much as 30 percent in some places. At the same time, this conservation-based managed forest has been hit hard by insects. In 2017, the reported area impacted by Douglas fir bark beetle was 70,000 hectares, according to the Ministry of Forests.

But that’s minuscule compared to the devastation caused by mountain pine beetles: some 730 million cubic metres of pine (equal to 730 million telephone poles), or 54 percent of the province’s merchantable pine, has been killed by this voracious insect, the Forests Ministry reports.

Pests are a natural part of forest ecology, but it’s widely accepted that climate change and forest practices focused on putting out fires while not managing for landscape diversity have put our timber supply in a perilous position.

That’s why Mycock believes it’s time to rethink how we manage the landscape by reintroducing fire and fire resilience, and implementing forest management regimes that include a more diverse range of species when possible, create firebreaks in some areas and maximize timber yield in others. Not just because the province can’t sustain the cost of $500-million fire seasons year after year; he thinks the long-term health of the forest sector and our communities depends on it. 

“The paramount message is that we need a climate- and fire-resilient forest resource, and we currently don’t have it. We have been observing increasing forest mortality with a limited ability to act due to barriers created by the current regulatory regime, while at the same time watching the forest fire risk increase,” Mycock says. “B.C.’s forest management approach has evolved through static set-asides for the multiple values and interests on our public land base.”

Credit: Courtesy of BC Wildfire Service

Forest fire smoke on Mount Shanks in Kootenay National Park

Grey, black and dead

Last May, while the Interior recovered from the previous summer’s fires and prepared for 2018’s, the City of Quesnel, the University of Northern British Columbia and the College of New Caledonia co-hosted the Future Forestry Think Tank. This gathering brought industry, government, funding organizations and research institutions around the same table to explore how Quesnel and its surrounding forests could be used as a model to seek ways to adapt forest management and address the challenges of climate change.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of forests to this community of about 10,000: eight local mills churn out everything from dimension lumber and plywood to oriented strand board (OSB). Quesnel lives and breathes through the vitality of the forest sector, but residents have seen the rolling plateau west of the city and the Fraser River decimated by fire and pests.

“Basically, our message is that we are facing a very uncertain future in the forest industry if status quo forest practices remain in place,” says Mayor Bob Simpson, who was acclaimed last September to another four years in office and chairs the think tank. “We’re working on getting approval to use this land base as a pilot project for developing forest practices that build resiliency into the forests of the future. It might mean there is less commercial fibre available, but with the goal of creating a more stable and sustainable supply.”

To add weight to their cause, Simpson and his colleagues enlisted advice from Paul Hessburg, an influential Washington State–based scientist with the United States Forest Service who specializes in climate change and forest health. Hessburg’s May 2017 TED Talk, “Why wildfires have gotten worse—and what we can do about it,” has been viewed more than a million times.

Since the first meeting in 2018, Simpson says the group has made progress. In January, the City of Quesnel hired a full-time forestry initiatives manager who got to work on a plan aimed a fire-proofing the city and treating roughly 400 hectares of interface forests that abut communities. Rethinking forest management on a landscape level with ecological resilience at the core of all planning will require hard work and a long-term commitment.

“We are in agreement that this is a conversation that has to happen,” Simpson says. “The alternative is grey, black and dead.”

When contacted by BCBusiness, the Office of the Chief Forester said the ministry is taking the issue seriously and developing “guidance material on how to consider climate in land use decisions” through the Future Forests Ecosystem Initiative. In an email response, the office referred to the recently announced climate-based seed transfer guidelines and species selection tools “aimed at incorporating knowledge of changing climates and the need for forest adaptation” as an example of efforts being undertaken.

Source: CBC News as of August 29, 2018

Throwing money on the fire

However, government policy can be slow to adapt. Among industry professionals, there’s a sense of urgency today that didn’t exist five years ago. Still, it’s not like climate change and forest health is a new topic. In 2016, the then–BC Liberal provincial government created the Forest Enhancement Society of British Columbia (FESBC).

As of this May, the FESBC had doled out $182 million to 174 projects across the province with a range of goals. Among them: improving low-value forests and supporting the use of fibre from damaged stands, enhancing wildlife habitat and preventing urban interface fires like the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire, which forced the evacuation of 27,000 people and destroyed 239 homes in Kelowna.

Last September, the province also launched the Community Resiliency Investment program, which has a $60-million budget to help First Nations and local governments reduce fire risk around their communities. 

But in some ways, the funding is a drop in the bucket. Lori Daniels, a professor with UBC‘s department of forest and conservation sciences, has estimated the cost of fireproofing 900,000 hectares of forest within a two-kilometre radius of B.C. communities at about $3.5 billion (more than twice the annual operating budget of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development).

As far back as 2010, the federal government gathered specialists from relevant agencies to produce the report Climate Change and Forest Management in Canada: Impacts, Adaptive Capacity and Adaptation Options, which highlighted the challenges facing land managers.

“We’ve developed our institutions and polices over many decades based on the assumption of a static climate,” says Tim Williamson, a resource economist with the Canadian Forest Service who contributed to the study. “The impacts of climate change on forests have been recognized, but climate change hasn’t been formalized in forest policy and management tools.”

Edmonton-based Williamson agrees with West Fraser’s Jeff Mycock that what’s needed is a much more dynamic and collaborative management approach. Yet dig deeper into forest policy and management in this era of climate change, and the complexity of the task quickly becomes evident.

Tongli Wang, a research associate at UBC‘s department of forest and conservation sciences and associate director of the Centre for Forest Conservation Genetics, says there’s a cruel irony when it comes to climate change and forest health. Forests have been singled out in the battle against global warming for their important carbon sequestering function, most recently at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. But rising temperatures are eroding their resilience in a big way.

Wang’s research focuses on giving land managers and foresters tools to bolster forest resilience in a changing climate. For example, he’s working on more-refined models that provide climate data for specific locations that will in turn help in tree species selection. Wang is also assessing and cataloguing the status of more than 40 native tree species in B.C.

“Forest genetic conservation is facing a serious challenge under climate change,” he says. “We need to assess [species’] protection status, assess their risk in future climates and develop genetic conservation strategies considering climate change.”

For foresters like Mycock and Erik Leslie, the 2017 and 2018 forest fire seasons have put a big exclamation mark on the need for a provincewide paradigm shift in forest management. One thing’s for sure: a walk in the woods is much different now than it was before B.C.’s forests started feeling climate change strike like a match to an open gas can.

The burning numbers around B.C.’s forestry industry


Forestry jobs in B.C.


Proportion of those jobs located in the Lower Mainland/Southwest

$12.9 billion

Forestry’s direct, indirect and induced contribution to provincial GDP in 2016

$2.5 billion

Provincial tax paid by the industry in 2016, versus roughly

$1.4 billion

in federal tax

Source: British Columbia’s Forest Industry and the Regional Economies, PwC Canada