On July 20, Jim Cooperman’s dread over what could happen intensified. It was happening.

By then, fires around Adams Lake, in B.C.’s Shuswap region, had been burning since July 12. They were getting bigger — and it seemed like nothing was being done.

It is becoming increasingly common knowledge that if you do not address a fire near a community early on, it can grow beyond our control and put lives and properties at risk. At that point, we can only hope for better weather.

Like many in Canada’s West, Cooperman lives in an area that is at an ever-increasing risk of fire. Cooperman believes the fire service’s attempt to save properties with a backburn came much too late. In fact, he filed a complaint alleging that the backburn was lit right before an anticipated windstorm, resulting in 178 properties lost due to “gross negligence.”

The BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) reports that 2.5 million hectares burned this year. That’s nearly double the previous high in 2018.

Twenty years ago, a destructive and poorly managed fire season prompted the Firestorm 2003 Provincial Review by former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon. The main concern British Columbians expressed? A lack of communication from the province. Accordingly, Filmon recommended increased community input in evacuation decisions and a communications plan to keep everyone updated.

The same mistakes were repeated this year.

British Columbians are at a loss with this outdated approach. What we’ve done in the past does not work any longer. BCWS’s capabilities have not evolved sufficiently to match the severity of this threat. In fact, veteran BCWS fire specialist Bruce Morrow wrote in Kamloops This Week that the model in place has “proven itself totally inadequate.”

Co-ordinate and communicate with communities

Morrow urges B.C. to follow the example of other jurisdictions by training and empowering local community members — often ranchers, contractors and loggers who have years of experience and local knowledge working in the woods and fighting fires.

To catch up with the threat of worsening fire seasons, B.C. needs to evolve, writes Julian Axmann. #Wildfires #BCWildfires #BCpoli #HeatWave #ForestProtection #CanadianForests

If B.C. really wants to get serious about involving rural communities in fire management, it should dedicate funding to a First Nations and Rural Fire Corps. Science cannot always pick up on all the subtleties of the land; this is where traditional and local knowledge becomes invaluable.

In response to this year’s devastation, West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund spoke at the United Nations. He informed world leaders that due to climate change, firefighting is at a “scale that’s nearly impossible for us to be successful against.”

Brolund’s conclusion is that “we are spending money on the wrong end of the problem.”

It is more important than ever to evolve our approach to forestry and fire.

According to the Forest Practices Board, B.C. forestry’s industry watchdog: “If the way forests and fire are managed doesn’t change, B.C. will face many more catastrophic wildfire seasons.”

Forestry slash adds fuel to fires

In the Adams Lake case, BCWS failed to consult the forestry licensee, Canoe Forest Products. This led to decisions being made that inadequately assessed the landscape risks. For example, recent clearcut logging meant that there were large slash piles.

According to a 2007 Canadian Forest Service pamphlet on forestry’s contribution to climate change: “When trees are cut down, 40 to 60 per cent of the carbon in them remains in the forest.”

This means perhaps half of what was cut got left behind as slash. That added a lot of extra fuel to the already rapidly growing fire.

Planted conifers are continuous fuels across the landscape

Forest Renewal BC chair in forest management John Innes says we need to create breaks in the current fuel patterns.

According to Innes: “The priority in the past has been timber, and this has resulted in large areas of continuous fuels over much of the landscape. Even-aged, continuous forest with high-stocking densities (business as usual) provides fires with the opportunity to spread and grow, as we have been seeing.”

Before wildfires got this extreme, it arguably made economic sense — from a timber production standpoint — to transform the landscape into fully stocked conifer tree farms. However, planting continuous conifer forests to address climate change is like trying to put a fire out by pouring nitroglycerin on it.

Broadleaved trees provide natural fire breaks that are much needed around communities and across the commercial forest. Since deciduous and mixed forests are of little interest to the forest industry — B.C. still aerial sprays broadleaves with herbicides — serious government incentives are needed for commercial forest practices to become climate-smart.

So here we are. B.C. is at a crossroads. One way is the status quo fire and forest management approach. That’s a burning dead end.

The other turn is a collaborative and co-ordinated solution that puts people to work on the land. BC Wildfire Service needs an updated mandate that requires more collaboration with communities and the establishment of a First Nations and Rural Fire Corps.

To prevent catastrophic fires as much as possible, we need to tie the best available science and policy together in a comprehensive recalibration of forest management. The Nature, Climate, Jobs (NCJ) Solution attempts to do that. Because we want B.C.’s forests to still be world-class by 2030, we need to protect, restore, and renew our forests and forestry industry now.

Julian Bahati Axmann is the co-ordinator of the Nature, Climate, Jobs (NCJ) Solution for B.C.’s forests at BC Spaces for Nature.

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"The Mother Tree" by Simard, forest ecologist, not only addresses most of these concerns but is also an excellent read.