Along the Fraser: Fire prevention at UBC research forest

The gap has grown between expenditures for response to wildfires.

MK’s new trucks with pumps could be convoy to tackle a fire. (Contributed)

The challenges faced in 2017 may not have been an anomaly, but a strong indication of a new normal our province and planet now face due to the unpredictable and increasingly volatile impacts of climate change – from Addressing the New Normal: 21st Century Disaster Management in B.C.

The ‘new normal’ for B.C. wildfires is ferocity.

In 2017, a record, 12,161 sq. km burned. This year, 12,985.

The Weather Network puts the average in the previous 10 years at 3,000.

What’s happening? Drier weather, more lightning strikes, and government and communities slow to transition from fire suppression to fireproofing, despite the recommendation of former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon (Firestorm 2003 Provincial Review) following the fires in Kelowna and Barriere-McLure.

Filmon’s warning is repeated in the 2017 review by former health minister George Abbot and Chief Maureen Chapman. In 2004, they write, there were a million hectares of “hazardous fuel” in B.C., but “only 10 percent of that has been treated [thinned, burned, chipped].”

The gap has grown between expenditures for response to wildfires and those for planning, preparedness, and prevention.

Trees in the UBC Malcolm Knapp Research Forest cover 12,740 acres. I’m here, on a smoky Aug. 30, to tour its three-year-old fire prevention program with its designer, Jeremy Watkins.

It’s our second meeting. In 2017, Watkins shared his “life-altering experience” fighting fire in Malcolm Knapp’s sister forest near Williams Lake. He and UBC forest manager Paul Lawson drove there in a fire truck they’d acquired. They’d completed the S100 Fire Fighting Course. Other staff have since.

“We’re always adding to the plan,” Watkins says. “We’ve got a lot to protect here.”

He means trees, but also an education centre and retreat at Loon Lake, summer camp and program for kids, and over 100 research projects in riparian area management, silviculture, wildlife, hydrology.

Equipment near the office measures fire danger. Today, an arrow denotes a high risk.

“An algorithm conforming to the Fire Act takes into account the history of a location over time,” explains Watkins – the make-up of the forest floor, fuels on the ground, type of trees, weather, rainfall. Read-outs determine allowable activities – logging, construction, lumber mill operations, and even mowing the lawn.”

The UBC forest operates a lumber mill.

“High risk,” says Watkins, “but allowed to run with the mitigating strategies in effect there.”

It’s a short walk to an equipment shed, where 100-foot-long fire hoses hang from a pole to dry.

“We have inventory for more,” Watkins says.

Nearby, there’s two new 4×4 Ford trucks with pumps and 1,000-gallon tanks.

“They can create a water-delivery convoy, or pump on site. We’ll set up bladder [fabric] fill tank here – a fill-and-go drive through.”

A few meters down the road (‘F’ on the map hikers use), we look at a 1970s diesel logging truck able to deliver 2,000 gallons of water.

The UBC forest has created 20 water supply ponds throughout the forest.

“We dug four new ones this year,” Watkins says. “Can’t be near streams, but you have to have a flow of groundwater to replenish them. Indicators of good locations are skunk cabbage and devils club. “

Sprinklers around the perimeter run continuously.

“A pond above the site can direct 20,000 gallons to the mill’s pumps and hoses.” Two large “totes” (1,000-litre water tanks) sit nearby.

Watkins says all lakes could be sources of water for pump trucks with long hoses and good traction.

Watkins says two forestry students check this area daily when the fire index is high.

He points out more water totes.

Another weather station overlooks an area logged off last year. There’s a mix of new greenery, and a lot of dead wood – slash. ‘Fuel management’ was key in the 2003, and 2017 wildfire reviews.

“We’ve created fuel loading we’ve had to deal with creatively; woody debris we have to manage,” Watkins says.

“The terrain’s too difficult for trucks that could pick it up and chip it. B.C. Wildfire Service would like us to burn it. We’d like to burn when we can, but it’s getting harder. We have to follow a Ministry of Environment burning and venting index that’s getting more restricted, and Metro Regional District has its bylaws and regulations. Their opinion is we don’t want you to burn because of air quality. In this area, we’ve dispersed the fuel and will plant between it, hoping that works.”

In 2003, Filmon urged all slash treated on site. The province should “establish prescribed burning,” he wrote.

Watkins hopes that becomes easier.

“Think you’re prepared?” I ask.

“We’d never consider ourselves, 100 per cent self-sufficient. Would we want to tackle fire on our own? No. Aerial support would be important.”

K Road downhill leads 10 minutes to the office and a pond near Marion Lake.

“The bears like to swim in it,” says Watkins. “Staff like to watch them.”

Jack Emberly is a

retired teacher, local

author and environmentalist.

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