Massive wildfires, evacuation orders and smoky skies are becoming regular facets of summer in the B.C. Interior and will continue to become more severe, a B.C. fire ecologist predicts.
Robert Gray, a Chilliwack-based fire ecologist with more than 30 years experience in fire science, believes conditions such as those seen in 2017 will become increasingly common — unless new forest management practices are adopted.
“We’re likely to see more of what we’ve seen in the last couple of years,” he said.
Gray is the president of R.W. Gray Consulting Ltd. and works with forest management in the United States and Canada.
In 2017, the province experienced one of the worst fire seasons in its history. That year, more than 1.2 million hectares of land was burned and roughly 65,000 people were evacuated.
The cost of fire suppression efforts that year topped $568 million.
“A 1.2-million hectare fire season finally woke people up,” he said.
Prior to 2017, the 2003 fire season was considered one of the worst in British Columbia’s history, with nearly 2,500 fires burning more than 265,000 hectares, and resulting in more than 30,000 people being evacuated.
While that fire season is still remembered as a destructive summer and fall, more recent fire seasons have had greater numbers of fires and a larger area of land burned.
“2003 was a blip compared to what we’ve seen over the last couple of years,” he said.
Gray has studied that fire season and co-authored the report, Firestorm 2003, after that season.
And in years to come, he predicts wildfire seasons could cause three to four times the damage as in the 2017 season.
However, he adds that it is possible to prevent this bleak, fire-charred future.
Gray suggests conducting prescribed burns in spring and fall to reduce the amount of fuel available for wildfires in the summer.
“Unfortunately that means putting smoke into the sky,” he added.
He also advocates other efforts to reduce the amount of dead wood, needs and other fuel sources on the forest floor.
He says British Columbia’s First Nations people used to practice prescribed burns to manage the forests. And in the United States, a modified suppression system allows fires to burn if they are not putting people at risk.
In contrast, Canadian wildfire efforts, especially in British Columbia, are much more aggressive in an attempt to protect timber supplies by containing and extinguishing forest fires.
He believes the Canadian approach to fire suppression is a significant factor in the increasing size and number of wildfires today.
“We have about 20 years to turn things around,” he said.
Gray has been urging a change in forest management practices for years, but in recent years, the response has changed and provincial government officials are more receptive to his suggestion of prescribed burns.