Forest thinning plan gains support

Cranbrook, Kimberley particularly at risk from fires without buffer around communities

A 10-kilometre buffer around Cranbrook and Kimberley could be thinned to this degree in order to protect communities from wildfires

A 10-kilometre buffer around Cranbrook and Kimberley could be thinned to this degree in order to protect communities from wildfires

As Canadian municipalities struggle to deal with wildfire risk from surrounding forests, a B.C. fire ecologist has come up with a series of policies that could solve the problem.

Robert Gray spoke to the Regional District of East Kootenay board of directors on Thursday, August 1, seeking support for a policy paper set to be published in an industry magazine later this year, at the behest of the provincial government.

The policies boil down to a simple concept: municipalities should be able to decide how wide an area around each community should be kept as a fire buffer. Then, Crown land inside that buffer should be under the control of the local government.

The community could then thin out the forest in the buffer, and sell the forest products for bio-energy.

“After numerous years of banging our heads against the wall and trying to figure this thing out, recently we have developed a concept of a Community Forest Management Zone for wildfire hazard reduction,” explained Gray.

There are 1.7 million hectares of forest close to communities in B.C. that need to be thinned for wildfire protection, Gray said. In 2005, a UBCM program set aside $85 million for that treatment. Since then, just three per cent of those hectares have been treated, using up $80 million.

“We are running out of money, and we’ve got very little done,” said Gray.

The cost is so massive that treatment is happening very slowly – slow enough that trees are growing back in on property treated last decade.

“Areas we have treated in Kimberley and Cranbrook, we already have to go back and retreat them because the fuels have grown back in, it’s been so long,” said Gray.

“At some point with minimal dollars, we’re not treating any new hectares, we’re just keeping the areas we originally treated at a low hazard state.”

The solution proposed by Gray would mean that local governments generate money to pay for wildfire hazard reduction with the products of that thinning.

“If we pool all the fiber in that zone, we can reach economic maximization versus picking away at postage-stamp size treatments,” said Gray.

“If we take all the revenues from within that zone and keep it in a local account, we’ll have program dollars versus project dollars. Right now, we go from year to year and we apply for single postage-stamp size treatments. We need program dollars where we can set a five-year development plan to treat hazardous fuels.”

The forest products that are cut down in the buffer zone can be used for heat in Cranbrook, with the surplus sold and exported.

“If we do local heating projects, Cranbrook has looked at converting 10 of the largest heat producers to wood waste. That’s about 2,000 tonnes a year – about 50 hectares. There are about 50,000 hectares that need treatment,” said Gray.

What’s more, a collaboration of the Cities of Cranbrook and Kimberley, ?aq’am (St. Mary’s Band), the Ktunaxa Nation and the Rocky Mountain Trench Natural Resources Society has signed a memorandum of understanding with U.S. Fortune 500 company SAIC to explore establishing a bio-energy industry in the East Kootenay.

“Local consumption is not going to be able to deal with the significant amount of volume that would be available with this type of approach,” said Kevin Weaver, the City of Cranbrook’s economic development officer. “The bulk of the volume is going to have to be dealt with essentially as an export product.”

Gray pointed out that when Cranbrook thinned Moir Park in 2005 at a cost of $120,000, it gave 1,100 tonnes of fiber to Tembec. If sold, that timber would have been worth $140,000.

“That would have made the project not only revenue neutral but profitable,” said Gray.

The need to protect communities from wildfire is only going to become greater, he pointed out.

“We are living in an era characterized by mega fires – these new, large catastrophic fires that are something new that we haven’t seen for quite a long time.

“The science is telling us that climate change is likely to result in longer fire seasons, bigger fires, more costly fires.

“We are facing a greater need to fire harden the landscape – basically, live with fire. We need to thin our forests and our watersheds and develop our communities in such a way that they can survive a fire. We are not in the mode now of stopping fires; we need to survive fires,” said Gray.

It’s vital that communities can determine for themselves the size of the buffer zone. Right now, a two kilometre buffer is the norm.

“Around Kimberley, a two kilometre buffer gives them about an hour and a half to evacuate 7,000 people. So we have to take our treatments way out to have some kind of effect on at least the safety aspect,” said Gray.

“Cranbrook, Kimberley, Castlegar – any communities that lie at the terminus of an east-west valley are the most at risk because our prevailing winds are west to east. There is nothing blocking a fire coming in that direction.”

Gray’s concept has been presented to the B.C. Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

“Minister (Steve) Thomson reviewed it. He requested clarification and direction from the director of the Wildfire Management Branch, he got it, so the minister is in favour of what we’re trying to do here,” said Gray.

Cranbrook has already voted in support of the concept; on Friday, August 2, the Regional District of East Kootenay board did the same.