Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Were The Fires Forseeable?

My parents moved to the  Cariboo in the spring of 1973. Despite my initial misgivings, I soon came to be grateful that they did, not least because  it put me into direct contact with two things that despite their fundamental nature had been pushed to the margins of my consciousness in the suburbs of Vancouver:  First Nations people and the working Forest.  With the Forest naturally came an awareness every summer of forest fires.   Since my parents’ house was  in the Wildwood area , at the foot of the airport hill, I jumped at the chance along with my brother  to get an opportunity to work at the Tanker Base at the Williams Lake Airport the following summer, mostly washing the airplanes between missions and while they were being re-fuelled.  I could see what tough, hot important work it was.  It was also dangerous: we even lost two pilots that summer. 

Flash forward 30 years, and I stopped at my parents’ home  in August 2003 en route to a teaching position at the University of Northern British Columbia.  That was the worst fire summer we had had up to that point,  and the smoke-filled sky  and several charred patches of forest that were visible from the highway were seared in my memory.  Still, as our understanding of climate change grew and the number of dead and dried out trees multiplied due to the pine beetle epidemic, I expected that another, much more serious fire season than 2003 was bound to happen. Well, it finally did, and we are living through it now.  (Of course, professional foresters will tell you that my theory about pine beetles and climate change is a little simplistic --sometimes wetter areas with more living trees can become more flammable if they go through an unusually dry spell, because they deposit more fuel on the forest floor, and the fire spreads more quickly from crowns of trees, etc.  Whatever the precise combination of factors, it seems that we had just the right mix of factors this year.)

It is of course too early to point blame at anyone, but I wonder if it is pure coincidence that  so many of the worst fires occurred near population centres?  Is it possible that governments, failing to take heed of the terrible fire season of 2003, did not put enough money into controlled burning near Cache Creek, Ashcroft, 100 Mile and Williams Lake?  It would have required budgeting more money for that purpose, and it would have had the effect of inconveniencing a lot of people with a lot of smoke, so it is perfectly understandable that  such an error of omission could have happened.   I am not an expert, so I don’t pretend to know.  But I am asking the question, and I am expecting some answers. One other thing I want to say: Thanks to all the volunteers.

1 comment:

Mark Crawford said...

Here is what a friend and forester (RPF) said in response to my blog

"You ask in your blog whether the current Cariboo fires were inevitable. I would state a qualified yes that they were inevitable due to fuel build up. I say qualified as I do not have first-hand knowledge of the actual fires and the conditions that they have burned under. Generally though, if you have lots of dry fuel, dry conditions, wind and some ignition source then you will have wildfires. We can limit ignition sources to some degree but otherwise fuels are the only thing that can be realistically managed by humans in the short run.

Though even with the best fuel management (mixed aged forests, regular grass burn off, logging and slash disposal on dead forests, etc.) there can be some weather conditions where everything will burn, including green forests. The only thing that might work then to protect towns and infrastructure is total fuel breaks with significantly reduced fuels in and immediately surrounding the homes."