Humans have coexisted with wildfires for millennia, climate change and industrial logging are making things worse

Intact forests are our biggest allies against worsening wildfires,
but we are logging them to the brink

February 24, 2021

By Robin Strong and Aurora Tejeida

Standing in the open field that only three and a half years ago was populated by old-growth and mature Douglas-fir, Bert William reminisces about the forest that once stood there and the devastating fire that consumed it.

William is the Senior Archaeological Advisor for the Bonaparte Indian Band and has always lived in the rugged country within Secwepemc territory. His band had cleared the stumps and debris shortly after the Elephant Hill fire had devastated this forest in the valley bottom of the Loon Lake watershed back in 2017, so that all that remained was an open field and the unnatural emptiness that came with it.

“The fire went across, up the gully, up the valley to the [Ashcroft Indian Band] reserve. It burned down six houses on the reserve,” says William, remembering that the fire seemed to have a mind of its own. “There were some [houses] in the line of fire and it never touched them. Jumped over those and burned some down, jumped over six, burned another one down. There was one house that got left here, and four houses that burned around it sort of thing.”

The Elephant Hill fire broke out near Ashcroft on July 6, 2017, and was the largest in B.C. during the record-breaking wildfire season that year. It burned nearly 1,920 square kilometres of land, ravaging the Ashcroft, Boston Flats, Loon Lake and Green Lake areas of the B.C. Interior.

Approximately three-quarters of the Bonaparte Indian Band territory was impacted by the fire, with a burn area 75 kilometres wide in places.

That day, William had driven into town with his mother when he noticed the smoke on the hills around noontime.

“Mom was in a panic, saying, ‘let’s get home, let’s get home before they shut the roads off!’ So, we came home, and it was starting to burn up on the hills as we were coming back from Cache Creek. Up on those hills, you could see it burning. It was rolling along,” recalls William.

“Within a minute, the whole fire was just creeping up the mountain. Then, all of a sudden, it just takes right off. By the time we got down to Bonaparte, it had just come over the hill. That whole country was on fire. You could see flames at the top of the hill, way up in the air.”

After dropping his mother off at home, William had picked up his brother and driven back towards Cache Creek to fight the fire that by now was at the main Bonaparte reserve. He recalls people coming out of their homes to help with whatever equipment they had, spraying down the sagebrush and grass, and building fire guards to protect homes.

By the time the Cache Creek fire department showed up, William says the land was covered in smoke and confusion. Smoke so thick he could hear the BC Wildfire helicopters but not see them.

A refuge in the face of climate change

B.C. has seen some of its worst fire seasons in recent years, and the severity and frequency of these fires are likely to increase in a warming climate. But there are concrete steps we can take to mitigate this climate risk. Unfortunately, we are logging our biggest ally – intact forested landscapes.

The dry forests of the interior evolved in tandem with Indigenous peoples and wildfire. The forested landscape prior to colonial forestry practices was made up of old-growth forests interspersed with young forests, grasslands, shrub fields, wetlands, and forest openings. This mosaic of ecosystems was created and maintained through the influences of wildfire and Indigenous cultural burning.

But this landscape has changed dramatically with decades of unsustainable clearcut logging.

Historically, many forests in this region were made up of old trees, spaced widely apart, with characteristics that enabled them to survive and thrive with regular wildfire. These old forests act like giant sponges – absorbing and retaining water, sheltering snow from melting, then slowly releasing the water over a long period of time – so what is left of these intact forests helps regulate the size and intensity of wildfires.

This also means that when left intact, these forests are more likely to burn in natural and predictable ways, making their protection and restoration one of the most effective ways to mitigate risks for wildlife and humans alike.

Severe wildfires have huge impacts on the wellbeing of wildlife and residents all over B.C. Three weeks after the Elephant Hill fires started, smoke blanketed most of B.C. and parts of Alberta. The fire burned for several months, with smoke cover for weeks on end.

“Day after day after day, man it wears on you. Mentally it wears on you,” recalls William, who suffered a stroke a few months before the Elephant Hill fire.

“My condition was, you know, I was having all kinds of problems with it. Mental problems. Trying to deal with the stroke thing and I was dealing with this at the same time. It really just about broke you sometimes.”

In addition to the displacement of many community members, the fire and the fight to control it caused enormous economic, property and cultural losses. Over 200 archeological sites were impacted according to William, something he says could have been mitigated had local communities been allowed to be more involved in the efforts to fight the fire.

“That hurt a lot. To be kicked out of your home and have some stranger come tell you what to do in your backyard” explains William.

Including local and Indigenous knowledge in the decision-making process can also go a long way when it comes to preventing these types of fires from starting in the first place.

“When a fire starts up, a plane comes in to bomb it and they put it out, within an acre fire, right? And they kept doing that over and over and over again for years. You know, it was great to put the fire out, but it’s not so great that all the fuel’s built up over the years. That’s what happened here,” says William.

Historically, fire has played an important role in maintaining ecosystem health for many types of forests and restoring natural fire regimes can be an important part of achieving balance. But this would require a fundamental shift in public and institutional attitudes towards fire management, as well as collaboration with Indigenous decision-makers.

But it doesn’t end with natural fire regimes and protecting old and intact forests, logging practices also need to change. Clearcuts generate a large amount of unused wood – leaving behind an estimated 40 to 60 percent of a forest’s biomass. The material often sits for years, creating a large amount of dry fuel on the ground that is vulnerable to fire.

Additionally, the practice of replacing intact forests with younger forests is a significant driver of wildfire severity.

“Logging practices, like taking out all those [old-growth] trees, planting all those pine trees. You go up to Scotty Creek and all those plantations burned too. Those trees were this tall,” William explains, motioning about hip-height.

“The fire just ripped right through that. A carpet of fire.”

In B.C.’s interior, intact forests don’t just moderate the extreme weather events brought on by climate change, they also retain a natural pattern of wildfire. A pattern with which people have coexisted for millennia and can continue to coexist with if the B.C. Government commits to protecting intact forests and better-managing forests degraded by logging to restore their resiliency.

When asked if he thinks the fires were worse because of those plantations, William’s answer is short.

“Worse. The fire would have stopped if it wasn’t there.”

Take Action

Global heating is putting the health and safety of communities in danger, and clearcut logging is making things worse. Please add your voice to make sure the B.C. government commits to an immediate deferral to logging in at-risk old-growth forests.

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