British Columbians have been inundated with imagery from forest fires for the past two years: destruction from Fort McMurray, the BC Interior fires that burned all summer, and more recently, devastating video footage from Napa Valley in California.
But forest fires have a purpose too, says Coastal Fire Centre fire information officer Donna MacPherson.
Fire helps rejuvenate a forest, and clean up the area so new growth can occur.
Prescribed burns, or slash burning under a fire management plan, helps clean up cutblocks leftover from logging operations in much the same way.
“We call it hazard abatement,” says Morgan Boghean, who has fought wildfires for the past 15 years—both in Alberta and coastal British Columbia. He spent 10 years on a crew and has been five with the Coastal Fire Centre.
“The more slash on (a cutblock) the more volatile it is,” he said. “Blocks that haven’t been abated, there’s so much debris it’s not easy for our crews to even get in and lay hose because we have to go in and cut.
“The Coastal Fire Centre in 2015 had that really bad year and most of our fires were to do with slash,” Boghean said. Fire in those areas burned larger and longer because there was more fuel leftover after logging operations, he added.
In 2015, for example, many places that ignited hadn’t had any regular burning for an extended period, Boghean explained. So the forest hadn’t done its natural cleanup, and there was still plenty of fuel left on the ground because slash burning hadn’t been done.
“We want to bring back prescribed burning” to get rid of some of that slash, he said. “We have to put more emphasis on working with industry and working with landowners to mitigate the risks. We have to start looking more at prevention,” he said.
“It’s definitely safer when we do more slash burning.”
While slash burning isn’t a requirement, landowners and logging companies “are required to abate the hazard,” Boghean said.
There are other ways to rid a cutblock of detritus, and other methods like chipping material, allowing the public to come in and cut firewood or using air curtain burners are employed in different regions. In residential areas, people can manage vegetation on their properties and even look at planting fire-resistant species to protect neighbourhoods.
(FireSmart Canada has useful tips on keeping properties clean and creating FireSmart neighourhoods—much like Block Watch—says MacPherson.)
Smoke from slash burning is also a concern, especially in valleys. That’s one reason burning is done in the wet fall season, because fires are lower in intensity and storms either tamp out the fire or blow the smoke away. “We work closely with industry so they are burning on good venting days,” Boghean said.
Still, they can’t control the weather and occasionally a sudden temperature inversion happens—such as occurred last week in the Alberni Valley with the three Gretchen Creek and Mount Irwin fires.
Forests are less healthy without fire, says MacPherson. Forests operate on periods of time between fire: in some areas, like the Interior, that period of time is shorter. In places like coastal BC, that period between fires is longer. “You’ve got some places in the province where the period is very short, like the Interior,” she said, which sees fire every year—unlike the coast.
“There’s very few places where fires don’t rejuvenate forests in B.C.,” MacPherson said. In those places—like the deep rainforest—they rejuvenate themselves through blow-downs.
“Forests are used to being disturbed,” adds Boghean. “Even on Vancouver Island we have fire-dependent eco-systems, like on the east coast.” These areas are used to burning every four to 25 years, he says.
“Fire is natural,” says MacPherson. “It’s normal. It’s the way the forest cleans itself every year.
“I know it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around because fire has been such a bogeyman for so long.”