Jim Hilton pens a column on forestry each week for the Williams Lake Tribune.

FOREST INK: Time to look at some additional options of fighting wildfires

After research I was able to find two articles about the effectiveness of thinning on fire control

With another bad fire season there will no doubt be some discussion regarding a return to some of the ways forest fires were fought in the past.

Some very experienced people think the use of live fire guards (thinned forests) will not be sufficient to stop a very aggressive wildfire and 200-metre cleared strips will be needed as well.

After some research, I was only able to find two articles about the effectiveness of forest thinning on fire control.

A study, led by researchers at The Australian National University and published in the journal Conservation Letters, compared fire severity in unthinned versus thinned forest burned in the 2009 wildfires. It covered two forest types — mixed-species forest and ash forest. The results showed that across almost every forest age and type, thinning made little difference.

It actually increased the likelihood of a crown burn in older, mixed-species forests, and slightly reduced the chance of crown burn in younger aged, mixed species forest. Closer to home, a small trial (3.6 ha experimental fire) was conducted in a black spruce peatland forest that had undergone thinning the year prior. The observations point to the limited effectiveness (likely reductions in crown fire intensity but not spread rate) of stem removal in boreal black spruce fuel types. While I was not able to find research on the impact of thinning, I believe most support comes from observations of reduced fire behaviour on stands with less fuel loading.

I think most people would agree that the thinned forests will help especially if adjacent to existing cleared areas like power lines but there may be no roads or power lines in some critical areas. I did find a reference about the use of a 200-metre wide fireguard that controlled the Vermilion Pass fire (part of the 2003 Tokumm Creek wildfire on a steep mountain side in the Kootenay National Park) but the control also included a series of backfires on the other side of the cleared strip.

Another concern of the older generation that is familiar with the Ministry of Forests approach when there were more district offices is the ability to respond to the early stages of wildfires and the greater involvement of the local resources, especially in the more isolated rural areas.

In retrospect, as the government of the day was attempting to reduce costs by downsizing it may end up spending a lot more on fighting large fires as well as losing timber revenues.

The government is trying to do some prevention work according to one article, 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).

Jim Hilton is a professional agrologist and forester who has lived and worked in the Cariboo Chilcotin for the past 40 years. Now retired, Hilton still volunteers his skills with local community forests organizations.

bc wildfiresWilliams Lake