Maps show how the floor of the North Thompson Valley is predicted to change from mostly Douglas fir (shown in brown at left) to bunch grass and sagebrush to north of Clearwater Lake (light yellow on right).

Responding to climate change means thinking differently

The Rambling Man was right on some points, but wrong about climate change

A few weeks ago the Times published an opinion piece by the Rambling Man, Jim Lamberton, titled, “Former faller says wildfire response mismanaged.”

It certainly resonated with a lot of people.

In terms of comments on social media, it had the biggest response by far of any article we’ve published.

It resonated with your editor as well. There are quite a few points that Jim and I agree on, although I think he was a little too hard on BC Wildfire Service.

There is one major point, however, where we differ diametrically.

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That is in his final paragraph where he wrote, “If the true figures were published, I think you’d have to admit that this catastrophic fire season is not about global warming. It’s about mismanagement.”

No, Jim, this year’s fire season was all about global warming.

This part of B.C. is about 1.1ºC warmer now than it was 100 years ago.

That’s the B.C. Ministry of Environment’s estimate. Talk with old-timers about how we don’t get the -40ºC winters like we used to and they will agree.

Warmer temperatures mean more extreme fire behavior. If you don’t believe that, then I have a bridge that I would like to sell you.

This is important.

If last summer’s extreme fire season was just the result of mismanagement, then if we could just return to the good old days when local loggers took the lead on fighting forest fires, then all would be well.

On the other hand, if climate change was the major factor, then in coming years we can expect to see more of the same and even worse.

The Future Forests Strategy done for the Kamloops Timber Area a few years ago predicted that, with climate change, there will be bunch grass and sagebrush extending to north of Clearwater Lake by 2080.

In other words, all the trees we see today on the floor of the North Thompson Valley will be gone – or at least highly stressed.

Where will they go? The most likely scenario will be fire.

Last week’s Fire Prevention Week supplement briefly mentioned the Peshtigo Fire, the most devastating forest forest fire in American history.

On Oct. 8, 1871, it roared through northeast Wisconsin, burning 16 towns, killing 1,200 to 2,500 people (estimates only, because so many records were lost), and destroying about 500,000 ha of forest.

The town of Peshtigo was burned to the ground within one hour. The firestorm created such strong winds that rail cars and homes were thrown into the air.

We don’t hear about the Peshtigo Fire because, 400 km to the south, the Great Chicago Fire began the same day, killing 300 and destroying nine sq. km of the city.

Also that same day, the towns of Holland, Manistee and Port Huron, Michigan burned.

The following day, Oct. 9, fire swept through the downtown area of Urbana, Illinois, about 230 km south of Chicago.

That complex of fires was an extreme event and we haven’t had anything like if for over 100 years.

Let’s say that it was a one in 200 year event when it happened.

What is the probability that something similar will happen now? One in 100 years? One in 50?

If we accept that climate change is real, then we also need to accept that the probability of such extreme events has increased and will continue to increase.

In other words, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

As people who live in a forested area, we should be concerned.

What kind of emergency response system will we need to cope?

Lamberton is correct in that we need to get away from this over-reliance on centralized systems.

If a forest fire can destroy a town in an hour, then we can’t rely on Victoria to provide help in time.

Steve Murray and the volunteer fire crew that formed spontaneously in Upper Clearwater last summer have the right idea, although I think even they are a little daunted as they realize the challenge they face.

The fact is, every town in Canada should have its own well-organized and properly funded civil defense organization. Climate change will bring us not just increased forest fires, but also flooding, windstorms and other calamities.

A million dollars spent on forest fuel reduction around communities is all very well, but in 20 years most of the effect will be gone. A million dollars spent on sprinkler systems, pumps and ongoing training on how to use them will still be of value 20 years later.

We also need to get away from this over-reliance on evacuating people everywhere.

Last summer, over 45,000 people were evacuated due to wildfires in B.C.

Although the host communities were overwhelmingly welcoming, experience elsewhere has shown that that welcome quickly wears off if the evacuees keep coming back or stay too long.

There is also the problem that the host communities can be ordered evacuated themselves.

Last summer, many people were evacuated to Prince George. That city, however, is rated as having a greater risk of wildfire damage than was Fort McMurray.

It would be far better if conditions were created that would allow the residents of communities, small and large, to stay in those communities.

That would mean creating refuges in schools, hospitals and so on where the residents could take shelter.

When you consider that such refuges might need to be able to withstand hurricane-force winds in a firestorm, it becomes apparent that the task is not trivial.

Nevertheless, it would be better to be in a building that was half-prepared than to be caught by a forest fire out on the highway while trying to evacuate.

Surviving human-caused climate change requires that we think differently. Learning new ways to deal with potentially catastrophic forest fires would be a good place for us to start.

 

Keith McNeill is editor of the Clearwater Times.