Evan Saugstad: More common sense needed in B.C. wildfire prevention

saugstad

Trees of life or trees of death? What are trees to you?

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Trees; supporting the economy of our communities? Saviour of earth from too much carbon production? Fuel for another massive wildfire? Power outages as they fall across power lines? Shade from sun and heat? In the way for growing a good garden? The list goes on, but love 'em or hate 'em, we need trees. We just need a little common sense on how we manage them.

Last December, a massive wind storm hit southwestern BC, blew down thousands of trees, caused major damages, and created extensive power outages. Although I wasn’t there to see the magnitude of this storm, the results were quite predicable and not unexpected, as I've seen these occur before and elsewhere. And, if we don’t begin managing our beloved trees, it will soon be replicated again.

While BC Hydro and road crews were still trying to repair the damage from all these fallen trees, Doug Donaldson, our minister of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development, held a year-end interview with CBC and talked about how our provincial government is not doing enough to get ready for another fire season  — sounds like my column from last summer.

And what do these two topics have in common? Trees, and in both accounts, it seems that we have too many of them, at least in the place and form.

Now, I love trees, and for part of my life, worked to ensure they were cut down and delivered to sawmills (and re-planted), or by fighting fire to ensure trees grew up to be adults and useful to our economy, or hunting animals who hid in our many forests. I still like trees, but living here in Fort St. John, I prefer sun over shade, that my power stays on, and that my gardens are free from shade or tree roots.

Our love affair with trees is nothing new, but it seems to have reached an epidemic of silliness when it comes to how we don’t manage them.

Many municipalities have passed bylaws limiting tree removal while at the same time asking our provincial government to get rid of them and save us from the next forest fire. Our tourist associations oppose clear-cuts (forest management) in our “viewscapes” or along our highways, yet petition government to get rid of smoke so we can see our mountains through the trees. Climate change experts say we just need more trees in our world and our eco-terrorists just want to give them a hug and left standing for everyone to admire.

I could go on, but you get the picture, so what can we do?

We can start by being real and staying simple. Why not go back to doing some of the things we used to do, like cutting down problem trees and forests?

And, we need to stop blaming everything on climate change (a special shout-out to our wonderful CBC, as they seem to be able to find an anonymous scientist quote for every weather-related or natural event story), and stop quoting our sunny-days Prime Minister that all we need is another carbon tax to fix things. Yes, climate change is important, but not for managing trees today and not likely for tomorrow either.

We have to manage our trees in the realization that every single one of them will eventually fall, some just sooner than others, and that when some do, they will create havoc. Doesn’t matter what you think of climate change, they will still fall.

It’s not rocket science as any forest management professional worth their salt can describe the many factors that make some trees stay standing longer than others. Same goes for fire behaviour. In our interior and fire-dominated forests, let trees grow long enough and most will eventually burn, if we don’t control fire. Nothing new here either.

In B.C., and especially on the coast, we will never eliminate power outages from downed tress, unless we switch to underground lines, which isn’t likely to happen. In and around our communities we should be managing the height we allow trees to grow and their density. Carving out holes in the forests for homes and roads is a recipe for disaster. All we do is expose once sheltered trees to the wind. Unfortunately, when these trees do fall, they can take out not just the offending homeowner, but an entire communiy's electrical and transportation systems.

My simple, flat earth solution? Start getting rid of these trees or limiting their height and keep doing it in perpetuity. Municipalities and the provincial government need to create bylaws or laws (rules) that limit tree heights and require homeowners to remove trees that pose a risk. I'm sure our loggers would love the work.

And all this talk about creating a managed forest next to communities to stop the next forest fire? For many of our forest types, thinning will only create the potential for the next disaster when the big wind hits. Most trees that grow up in a dense and intact forest, don’t survive when we cut down their neighbors and expose them to the elements. Instead, go back to harvesting the entire forest and then managing it back to a more desired forest.

And, as stated previously, hire more fire crews to put out more fires when they are still small. If climate change will give us more fires, then we need to stop complaining and plan for them. Hire all those unemployed people in our small rural communities to put out fires and when they aren’t doing that, work to reduce community fire hazards.

As to the notion that eliminating herbicides (such as glyphosate) will give us better forests? Don’t want or need to do that. Just allow forest companies to manage new forest stands to a prescribed fire resistance standard (ie. allow some or all deciduous trees to grow back), and don't require forest companies to manage back to what was there previously.

In our part of the world, herbicides can actually reduce or prevent spring fires in our Calamagrostis (that very tall and dense grass) areas, by eliminating this grass and allowing trees to grow back instead.

In short, make decisions that reflect reality. Removing more of our “big” trees and replacing them with “little” ones will make our communities safer.

Evan Saugstad lives in Fort St. John. 

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