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Evan Saugstad: To burn or not to burn, that is the question

There is room for us all: indigenous fire management, industrial forest and fire management, and most importantly, a public education as to why we remove or modify our forests and for what reasons
Firefighting crews at the NK’Mip Creek wildfire in the Okanagan.

saugstadAnother weekend of rain, hoping it helps our Peace River farmers and that some does get south to help with the fires. 

There’s nothing like a rainy, cool day to catch up on the news and try understanding the hypocrisy. I’m not sure which is worse, reading all the conflicting info about COVID or the endless articles on how to convert B.C. from a province of wildfire to one of planned fire. Unfortunately, my flat-earth sense says we will be no more successful in getting rid of wildfire than we are in ending COVID.

Lots is being written about what is wrong with our firefighting efforts and what the cures are. Common sense and practical solutions are lost on most, as these solutions tend to come from common sense and practical people who live, work, and experience rural B.C. firsthand; something that most of B.C.’s urban population has no understanding of. Take our Global Vancouver broadcaster. They could start by setting the record straight by reporting that not all of B.C. is burning. Not all are under campfire bans. Not all are in drought, and the sun is not scorching us all. And they could take the novel step of reporting on what is happening and not just repeat selected statistics coming from the neophytes masquerading as government experts.

I’m not sure what it took to have the media finally take note and begin reporting the stories from the rural residents of Monte Lake and how they have had enough of government bureaucracy and ineptitude that were willingly signing their community into oblivion.

They are 110% correct in making thoughtful decisions about how they can stay put and fight for their community, while our Provincial Ministers in charge berate their efforts and those in charge of wildfire and emergency management run and hide behind evacuation orders.

Why wouldn’t you stay and fight if you have the proper equipment, have a boat to escape with if needed, or green fields to walk out into, or the now deserted highways to drive down? Why shouldn’t B.C.’s plethora of loggers be able to take their tractors, hoes, bunchers, skidders, water tankers and firefighting gear and just go do it on their own if government won’t? Easy answer to that one. No professional firefighting organization would want a bunch of volunteers to show up and actually put the fire out.

firewhiterockA photo of the devastation. By Don Tryon / Monte Lake BC Facebook

Then there are the endless reports from “researchers” who have studied their 10 square metres of B.C.’s earth and are now experts on how B.C. can be saved. Tell me why just last month these same people were writing reports about saving all of B.C.’s remaining trees from destruction by loggers, or no more forest management activities so we can save our caribou, or how our tourism spokespersons vigorously oppose the removal of any trees that could be viewed by, or from, our communities, waterways, and highways?

Does it now make one feel good to realize that all these “protected” areas burn quite well as they have matured and become heavily loaded with fuel, and that when they do get going no human firefighter will stop them? Surprise, surprise, many of these protected areas are all adjacent to our communities and highways, and when they burn... 

Are you one to blame the forest industry for leaving all that woody debris behind? Remember the 1960s and 70s when every fall the smell of smoke filled the air? That was before slash burning ended when our public health officials said wood smoke is bad for people, and before our thousands of researchers came to the conclusion that burning woody debris was bad for all of the little forest critters too. 

And now we wonder why our logging slashes can burn so readily? I used to work weekends lighting slash fires and did spend a big part of my life as a professional wildfire fighter, and today’s forest fires are no better or worse than fires of yesteryear.

Can you remember when ranchers, farmers, and other users of the land would routinely burn their ranges to promote new growth, rid the countryside of brush and trees, and, coincidentally, reduce future fire hazards? What happened to them?

We hear of endless solutions that indigenous people can offer. Well, another news flash, historical and planned fire management only worked in parts of B.C., and when a dry summer hit along with ever-present lightning storms, B.C. burned. But back then no one put them out and they burned until the fall rains came.

15 Cutoff Creek wildfireThe Cutoff Creek wildfire south of Vanderhoof. By Prince George Fire Centre/BC Wildfire Service

And all the rhetoric around how we have now have record number of evacuation orders. Well, fact is we do as that is what we now prescribe. Somehow, our politicians — local, provincial, federal, and first nations — all sign on to the theory to send everyone to the next town to live in hotels and restaurants and hope that government foots the bill, and that our woefully inadequate wildfire organization will save our communities.

There is no magic bullet, but there are solutions.

It starts with not using the same old forest professionals writing yet another report. It starts by looking at how we wish to manage our forests, what we leave standing, what we leave behind. It starts by involving all rural people in these decisions on how we manage and respond to fire. There is room for us all: indigenous fire management, industrial forest and fire management, and most importantly, a public education as to why we remove or modify our forests and for what reasons.

In all my reading last weekend, one article did get it correct: It has become almost impossible to use prescribed fire on public Crown lands, and by extension private lands, as we are so fearful of that ever-present threat of a $1 million fine if you should burn so much as one bird nest or scorch that most valuable pine tree.

For examples, we need to look no further than northeast B.C. We have individuals masquerading as decision makers who cannot make a single decision that would allow for a single prescribed fire to be used for any purpose, let alone public safety or wildlife management.

I remember Skook Davidson, one of B.C.’s iconic guide outfitters who pioneered the business on the Ketchika. Every spring he would loan his horses to the Kaska when they were out beaver trapping and hunting (yes, beaver trapping used to be an honorable occupation). He had one condition: wherever they went, he wished to see smoke as that is what made for good habitats, and no government official dared correct him as he would just tell them where to go.

Somehow, it all worked, but today the Ketchika suffers for the need of a few more good burns. 

Evan Saugstad lives and writes in Fort St. John.