By Richard Klafki, Canadian Rockies Program Director, Nature Conservancy of Canada
This summer British Columbians are witnessing an unprecedented wildfire season.
Already, as of late July, we have had over 1,200 wildfires burning on lands and in communities across the province. Smoke-filled skies remind even those far from active fires that for many, the summer of 2021 will not be about beach parties and barbeques, but will instead be about anxious preparation, waiting and worry.
Like many landowners in BC, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) has been spending more time understanding and preparing for wildfires on our conservation lands. Our staff are responsible for the care and management of 83,353 hectares of natural lands in this province. In the past decade we have managed fires on at least one of our conservation areas every year except 2020. And while we recognize that many of the ecosystems on these lands have been beneficially shaped by natural periodic fires, too much fire burning at too high an intensity is a serious threat to ecosystems and human communities.
Climate scientists and forest ecologists have been warning that hot, dry and fire-filled summers will become the norm in the coming decades. However, the timing and severity of the impact of the climate crisis on the 2021 fire season are beyond what most were predicting. Of the key factors driving fires – fuel, ignition and weather – we have the most control over reducing fuel loads in the forest. NCC has been working for years to clear accumulated forest debris and mountain pine beetle-killed trees on our lands in order to minimize the potential for a spark to grow into a catastrophic, high-intensity wildfire. But sometimes conditions are so extreme that they overwhelm the precautions we have taken.
The Cultus Creek fire currently burning on the Darkwoods Conservation Area is a distressing example of a wildfire that is burning out of control and threatening the very natural values we have been working to protect on that land. Our top priority is the safety of our staff, contractors and nearby communities. All field work has been suspended, and all public access into Darkwoods is closed. The fire was started by lightening on July 2 and has grown to over 3,000 hectares. It is burning up the slopes of Mt McGregor, and threatens the small vacation community of Tye, on the shores of Kootenay Lake.
Wildfire control and protection is the responsibility of the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS), who must balance their resources across the province and do what is best for the people of BC. NCC has been working closely with the BC Wildfire Service to monitor and manage this fire since it was first detected. We identified high priority values, including older mature forests and important infrastructure such as bridges, to help guide firefighting activity. We sent out an emergency brushing crew to open up roads and widen the guards for the fire crews we hoped could be dispatched to contain the fire. Unfortunately, due to the sheer number of fires sparked across the province in July, BCWS had to direct all of its crews, water bombers and machinery to the numerous serious fires threatening people, homes and communities.
When the Cultus Creek fire started to threaten Tye, BCWS sent in some crew to defend the area. The fuel reduction treatments NCC had done around the community in the past several years helped BCWS successfully protect the cabins and infrastructure at Tye. The community is no longer under direct threat, though it remains under an evacuation alert.
No one wants to see a forest burn. NCC would never choose to let a wildfire rage in an uncontrolled situation like this. We are very concerned about the many people who are struggling with the smoky skies and poor air quality, or who are worried about risks to their property. We want to assure our neighbours in communities around Darkwoods that our regional staff are in regular contact with the BCWS and are providing them all the information we can to help them action and suppress the fire when more resources become available.
Intense fires like the Cultus Creek fire also negatively impact the forest ecosystems we are trying to conserve for everyone. Uncontrolled wildfires burn too hot, scorching the soil and stripping the topsoil down to bare rock. This makes it difficult for plants and trees to regenerate naturally. It also increases runoff and the possibility of erosion events.
We even had been working towards conducting a careful prescribed burn in the very area that is now on fire. The plan was for a low intensity surface fire that did not kill trees, and which would have reduced the chances of a high intensity wildfire to grow there. Instead we are facing this high severity burn spurred on by a record-setting heatwave
This fire is no doubt having a significant impact on wildlife and the forest, which was already suffering from increased drought stress. Despite being in a fire-adapted landscape, with wildlife that have evolved alongside periodic forest fires, it’s clear that Darkwoods will be a different place after the fire, and there will be a lot of clean up. We won’t know the extent of the damage until we can go in and assess the situation after the fire event is over.
We would never want to see this kind of destructive fire on Darkwoods, or anywhere else in BC. The impact of this fire season in the province will surely be felt for years to come.