Local government representatives, Ministry of Forests employees and Forest Enhancement Society of B.C. (FESBC) board members were able to see the effectiveness of forest fuel management in action on July 11.
During a day-long tour of different funding projects by FESBC, John Walker, Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) stewardship forester, brought the group to the site of a forest fire which had been sparked by lightning only a few days before.
“This is proof that these things work,” said Walker.
Right next to the Williams Lake Sportsmen’s Association property, where work had been done the year before by WLFN for fuel management, lightning had struck.
The lightning had started a wildfire, which was discovered and responded to by firefighters on July 7, 2023.
Thanks to the work done the year before, the forest in that location had been spaced out, reducing the fuel available for a wildfire to burn, reducing its intensity and the ladder fuels had been removed. Ladder fuels are the low branches and underbrush which allow a fire to move from the ground up into the crowns of trees.
The spacing had opened up the crowns of the trees to provide space between trees as well, so if a fire did climb up and “go aerial” it would be harder for it to go from one tree to another.
While some might wonder why it isn’t better to remove all the trees in these “fuel breaks” around communities and structures, Steve Kozuki, executive director of FESBC, explained the shading of the remaining forest is also an asset, reducing the relative humidity, reducing the grass undergrowth and reducing temperatures, all of which slow fire spread.
While the understory burn to remove more of the fuel still on the ground had not yet been done, the spacing, thinning and removal of ladder fuels still ensured the fire did not grow quickly or burn as intensely and stayed on the ground.
The firefighters were able to relatively easily control and extinguish the fire, reducing the amount of time it would have taken to fight the fire and preventing what could have been a much more volatile fire situation.
It was just one of the locations the group toured that day, taking in another similar fuel reduction project near Felker Lake, where WLFN was able to treat an area for a fuel break alongside another project they were doing work on and combine efforts to reduce costs and increase the effectiveness of both projects.
In one PhD. project in the Williams Lake Community Forest, a study of tree rings revealed the historic cycle was for the area to experience a fire on the landscape every two to 15 years. Most of those fires were low-intensity fires, with the occasional high-intensity burn. But for over the last 100 years, fire has been excluded from the landscape, allowing the forest fuels to build up and the forest to become much more dense.
WLFN Kukpi7 (Chief) Willie Sellars visited two of the projects with the group and spoke about how important it is to mitigate the risk of wildfires and the concerns in the community after 2017 every time there is smoke or fire in the area.
“Historically we were much better stewards of our lands in our traditional territories,” he said, noting how this began to change when forests began being viewed as a commodity. He celebrated the progress which has been made in the recent decades in terms of integrating the knowledge of elders and a more holistic approach.
He said it is a big step forward now as industry, different levels of government and First Nations are now all taking part in the discussion and he celebrated the work which has been done together to make the community safer.
“We do have some great people that are really leading the charge on behalf of our community,” he said.
Kozuki said the goal of the landscape fuel break is also largely to restore a more resilient forest, closer to what would have existed historically.
“I believe timber is the by-product of doing forest management,” said Walker, as he explained other benefits to the project, including habitat enhancement, noting how much he has learned along the way. An elder tour the day before had shown him the value the community puts on the other byproducts of opening up the forest like more traditional plants.
“When a Saskatoon bush was there, the tour stopped,” he laughed, noting they need a more open forest for those.
“It’s about finding that balance,” said Sellars, between stewardship and economic benefits.
Ken Day, a retired forester and board member of FESBC said the success they are seeing now in these projects he attributes to the “really good collaboration in the Cariboo where everybody in this plan area has been gathering for years to discuss priorities.”
The fuel treatment in the Felker Lake area is planned for a large-scale burn in the fall and will include some treated areas and some which will just be burned, conditions permitting.
Kozuki noted how in the southern part of the province where timber values are higher due to longer growing season and bigger timber, the same type of projects can pay for themselves, but in areas like the Cariboo, government has a role in supporting these projects in order to protect communities.
One challenge mentioned by FESBC was with these plans looking 20 to 40 years out, shorter political cycles can impact long-term funding and planning.
Kozuki mentioned stocking standards can impact this type of project as well, but overall, the group was very positive about what they saw, with Day pointing out the thinned trees were well-selected as good timber stock for future harvest moving forward.
“This is a win and a win and a win and we don’t get to score that way very often, not in this business,” said Day. “We will grow more timber on fewer trees.”