Community forest: Smoke and mirrors?

To the Editor,

In early November, the Wells Gray Community Forest announced its prescribed burning relating to cut blocks totaling 85 hectares, nearly one square kilometer. The announcement also said “project implementation will be evaluated” and would proceed only if conditions are suitable.

For over a month now, residents of the valley have been breathing smoke, including particulate matter and harmful gasses generated by the incomplete combustion of wood waste.

The atmospheric conditions in and around Clearwater are very rarely, if ever, suitable for open burning, especially low-elevation burning. Even a cursory inspection of the government website reveals this fact. The nature of local geography and atmospheric physics means that inversion layers are formed every single day. These create a ceiling through which smoke never penetrates. One day after the next, the smoke accumulates in the valley and seeps into every corner through the physical processes of diffusion and Brownian Motion. There’s no getting away from it.

Oblivious to the plight of those with compromised lung conditions, like asthma, or the fact that fall is “flu season,” and that it’s also “COVID season,” this prescribed burning happened. It even snowed shortly after the announcement was made. This extended the time for which the house-sized burn piles smoldered. Then, incomplete combustion resulted in even more toxic products. This could have been avoided by looking at weather predictions. Even under good combustion conditions, wood smoke has been identified, in study after study, as being very harmful to human health.

I’m at a loss to even guess at what the Community Forest evaluated before going ahead with its burn plan.

Slash burning is last in a series of harmful and reckless forest practices that have become so normal that they are rarely questioned. Instead of harvesting selected trees, cut blocks are completely denuded through clear-cut logging. This compromises water retention, it increases the absorption of solar energy which heats up and dries out the land. It also creates local convection currents that dry out the surrounding forest. Clear cuts increase the risk of wildfires, they do not reduce it.

Much of the material burned in slash piles is comprised of broadleaf species, like birch and aspen. These trees would be better left standing for their ecological services, in particular, water retention, shading and for proven fire breaks. The remains of these trees do not belong in our lungs.

B.C.’s forests could help store carbon that would slow climate change. However, these mismanaged forests now increase atmospheric carbon instead of helping to absorb it, as they once did. Slash burning contributes about 15 per cent of all of B.C.’s carbon emissions. If community health doesn’t enter WGCF’s planning and operation, I seriously doubt that climate change does, either.

It’s obvious that the Community Forest needs to re-evaluate more than its burning practices. Generating funds, from ecologically and socially reckless activity does not relieve the WGCF of its inherent responsibilities. All it does is to buy social approval for destructive activity on the public land base. It’s time to put community into the Community Forest.

Dave Simms

Clearwater, B.C.