Fire strategy has shifted

Controlled fire burns can be good for the forest and prevent unexpected fires in the future

LAST WEEK the fire danger rating was changed back to low and the ban on open fires was lifted.

But two fires in the northwest continued to burn through their surroundings. As of Aug. 30, crews were containing flames on just one side of a 3,500 hectare fire outside of Boya Lake Provincial Park north of here and doing the same at a 1,400 hectare blaze near Morice Lake south of Houston.

Each fire was also being closely monitored.

“If we can let a fire burn naturally, we will,” said Tony Falcao from the forest service’s wildfire management branch in Terrace.

An expert in forest fire fuels management, Falcao says allowing a fire to burn is not only good for the forest itself, but will also burn fallen trees and dead debris, which can serve as fuel for a future unexpected fire.

Things changed in the way forest fires were treated in B.C. after 2003 which was B.C.’s worst season record based on the number of fires, their intensity and accompanying destruction.

Gordon Campbell, the premier at the time, commissioned a report to discover why the fires were beginning to burn more intensely.

The results of the Firestorm 2003 Report stated, “It is clear that a successful record of fire suppression has led to a fuel buildup in the forests of British Columbia.

“The fuel buildup means that there will be more significant and severe wildfires … unless action is taken.”

In response, the province began a program to manage the fuels on the forest floor by funneling money through the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM).

“The intent is to enable communities to create community wildfire protection plans,” said Falcao.

“One element is to look at the landscape around the community and recognizing potential hazards,” he said, adding that for this area, most of the activity is cleaning up ground fuels and pruning to two or three metres.

Pruning is removing lower branches from living trees so that fires from the forest floor cannot spread so easily to the trees.

The more height fuels have, the more of a threat is posed, Falcao said.

The most common and cost-effective way to dispose of fire fuels is by burning it on-site in small piles.

But depending on the location, a wood chipper may be used. The wood chips are spread out or occasionally hauled out of the area and used as a bed for  trails.

For example, if a fuel build up was near a school, crews would avoid burning because of smoke issues.

Fires are not only beneficial to managing the build up of fuels, but for the health of the forest itself.

“You get a big kick of nutrients for two years,” said Dave Coates, research silviculturist with the Skeena regional office of the B.C. Forest Service.

He said that nutrients are released from organic matter in a fire and left on the forest floor. That combined with a dense seed bed (seeds are separated from trees during a blaze), warmer soil temperatures and more sunlight (if a forest’s canopy has burned), creates ideal growing conditions.

In the first two years, herbs and shrubs will grow exceptionally well, Coates said.

As well, a natural regeneration of trees will take place: new trees growing from the ashes of old ones.

Fire is also important for the destruction of diseased trees, which old forests will always have. But when a fire burns through them, all new growth will be healthy disease-free trees.

“That’s one of the great things about fires: It creates ideal condition for regeneration of new trees,” Coates said.

Also in the first two years after a fire, it is not uncommon to see a new growth of morel mushrooms.

“They can be very abundant, especially up north and people love to pick them,” said Coates.

Wild berries will return anywhere from five to 30 years after a fire has gone through a forest.

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