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FORESTRY WEEK: Fire resiliency in the Alberni Valley Community Forest

Manager says a bio-diverse forest is the best way to prepare against wildfire

The Alberni Valley Community Forest is not just a place for people to recreate outdoors, even though its well-kept system of trails is a draw year-round. It is a working forest: timber sales from logging activity provide dividends to the city; timber too small to sell is repurposed as a source for firewood; trees are planted to replace those that are cut down every year.

Drought, heat waves and threat of wildfire have affected all aspects of the forest over the past couple of summers. “We shut down earlier than most people. We’ve been shut down since May,” forest manager Chris Law said.

“It’s not worth the risk.”

While logging operations shut down, it isn’t possible to completely close the trails, so Law does a daily morning patrol to look for illegal campfires or other issues. “That’s all we’ve been doing out there since May, is patrols.”

Fire resiliency is a going concern for Law and his employees, especially after a record wildfire season in British Columbia. While the wildfire at Cameron Bluffs was kilometres away on the other side of the Alberni Valley from the community forest, the ongoing challenges with Highway 4 closures kept it top of mind the entire summer.

Law says it’s time the province takes a hard look at its forest practices.

“For the past 50 years the province’s focus has been on fibre production. That’s coniferous trees for fibre production. In that process they have had government-funded programs to eliminate any deciduous competition.” On the west coast that’s maple and alder, or leafy trees.

“The maple and alder trees function as a natural fire break. That’s what they’re discovering in the Interior,” Law explained. In B.C.’s Interior the deciduous trees are mainly a species of aspen.

“They’re discovering that anywhere there is an aspen retention it slows the fire down and actually gives them a chance to fight it. Whereas the 100 percent coniferous forests…burn way faster.”

Deciduous trees offer more shade, and the broad leaves aren’t as volatile for fire burning.

“A healthy forest is a bio-diverse forest,” Law said. “You need that component of deciduous retained within the stand.”

READ: Science knew severe B.C. wildfires were coming, speed of arrival ‘shocking’

In the Alberni Valley Community Forest, deciduous trees, especially maple, grow naturally. “What we do is manage it along with the coniferous. So instead of going in and killing it all, we prune the maple back to two or three or four dominant stands so they don’t occupy as much space. But they still become a component of your forest.”

There are other areas on Vancouver Island where deciduous trees don’t grow naturally, and forestry companies are beginning to include alder interspersed as part of their replanting plan, he added.

The area within the boundaries of the AVCF has only been managed in a community forest capacity for about 20 years, but Law said there are already some mature stands of deciduous trees that provide that diversity—and thus fire resiliency.

“All the stands that we first logged, which is along Sproat Lake Landing/ West Bay area, we’ve maintained that component of deciduous because it’s a natural fire break between the forest and the community.”

There is a study going on at the University of B.C. right now where researchers are looking at forests and fire behaviour. “That’s one of the things they are keying into, is the biodiverse forest,” he said.

Lori Daniels, a professor in the department of forest and conservation sciences at UBC said entrenched forest management practices, coupled with climate change, have created a landscape more conducive to large, high-intensity blazes. She said the province must shift away from its timber-focused approach and give broadleaf or deciduous trees more focus as one step to prevent another record wildfire season.

There are other ways that Law helps manage wildfire risk in the AVCF. “Even our firewood program, where we put all the wood we’re not taking, we deck it out roadside and we open it up to the public. The public comes through and cuts it all up, and we go back after and the stuff the public doesn’t take that’s too small, we re-pile and burn.”
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Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I proudly serve as the Alberni Valley News editor.
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