British Columbia’s Growing Wildfire Issue


The burning issue

Wildfire seasons have been getting worse across Canada. One major cause for this is our current understanding and model of firefighting as primarily “fire suppression.” In British Columbia, the Wildfire Service has been so successful in employing this model of firefighting that we have inadvertently facilitated saturated wildlands with overly dense forests, and massive build ups of ground and ladder fuels, all over the province. Now, close to a century of successful “fire suppression,” has in part lead to the three most damaging wildfire seasons on record for BC in the past five years.  What is needed now is more frequent prescribed burning throughout our province, substantial engagement with rural communities and indigenous nations.

Hotter and drier summers for BC in the future

The predicted weather forecasting for much of the future, conducted by scientists around the globe, points to an increase in average global temperatures and more erratic weather patterns.  What this means for BC is a greater chance of drought across the province, as well as a trend we have been discovering in recent years. It also means a greater chance of worsening wildfire seasons, which we have also been experiencing. One thing that has been noted by academic researchers and scientists is this is somewhat preventable. The increase in forest fires is not exclusively caused by climate change. In fact, in BC’s case it has to do with colonial practices versus traditional indigenous practices. 

The Provincial Government of British Columbia has traditionally employed a model of wildland firefighting that “hits hard and hits fast,” known as ‘fire suppression.’ Most initial attack fires are suppressed at a 92 percent rate of successful extinguishment. This model of firefighting, while effective, has led to almost a century’s worth of forest litter build up. This buildup of fine fuels, and ‘duff’ fuels, consisting of deeper ground fuels such as decomposing logs, has occurred throughout our entire provinces’ forested lands, which is estimated at about 60 million hectares. This does not include grasslands, brush, and shrubbery, which are also found throughout the province. What is needed now is to go back to traditional Indigenous practices, with a new outlook and potentially a hybridized or revised model of wildland firefighting.

In the past, before the establishment of a colonial fire suppression governance model, Indigenous nations took fire to the land more regularly. They initiated this in order to mitigate the kind of large, catastrophic fires that we are experiencing now. Their traditional practices go back much further than any colonial firefighting model.  They did not seek to suppress fire, but rather encouraged it more frequently, and it had the direct effect of keeping the ecosystem in balance, leading to healthier, vibrant forests and wildlands. 

The colonial ‘boots on the ground’ wildfire ideology contains two basic philosophies: ‘put it out,’ and ‘let it burn.’ The ‘let it burn’ philosophy is very similar to the Indigenous traditional practices—differing only in the persistent mentality of containing the fire after ’ allowing it to burn. ‘Put it out’ is self explanatory. Many operational plans are determined by a fire boss’s inclination towards, and experience with, one of these philosophies. Yet the constant tension between the two, and general lean towards the ‘put it out’ camp by the BC Wildfire Service, has only made forest fires more likely to occur. 

Potential mitigating solutions

One way to further mitigate intensifying wildfire seasons is to increase the frequency of prescribed burns throughout the province. This can be achieved by making prescribed burning a priority for the operational crews in the BC Wildfire Service during the ‘shoulder seasons.’  Yet this implies, to some extent, regularly offering extensions to the large auxiliary workforce that composes about 100 percent of our Type 1 wildland firefighters.

While there is a financial feasibility question in offering extensions regularly, it is essential in obtaining the goal of larger scale prescribed burning plans. A drawback of this general plan, of course, is the labour-intensive nature of preparing a section of forest for prescribed burning, primarily done through ‘stick-picking’ and ‘pile burning’ methodologies. While this is an efficient method, it is slow and limited when compared to the scale of wildlands that need to be burned. With about 60 million hectares of forest, there is only so much that can be done with a workforce of around 1500 personnel.

This leads us to our next solution to this larger scale problem in fire hazard abatement schemes: involving Indigenous nations on a larger scale in these operations. What we might expect here is specific liaisons in the BC Wildfire Service reaching out to bands and reservations throughout the province. Then there is the need to facilitate and nurture a working relationship with indigenous nations, and identify, train, and organize people who would be willing to help with prescribed burning. This will also take frequent consultation at multiple levels between the Wildfire Service, the provincial government and the respective nations and bands in hybridizing, combining with, or turning to strictly traditional Indigenous burning practices.

One of the biggest hurdles here will be letting go of what the BC Wildfire Service and the BC Government think they know about wildfire suppression, and being more open to the Indigenous perspective and the ‘let it burn’ philosophy. Another hurdle is acting quickly and scale up rapidly which could mean outsourcing expertise in order to liaison, train and work with Indigenous nations and BC Wildfire staff. Or it could mean offering up extensions focused solely on working with, and building cross-training programs between the government and Indigenous nations or a hybrid of both ideas.

Rosales initiating a controlled burn to prevent wildfires from worsening.

Rosales initiating a controlled burn to prevent wildfires from worsening.

What should the BC Government do about forest fires?

  1. Make prescribed burning the main priority for the BC Wildfire Service staff in the ‘shoulder season,’ and extend working contracts 

  2. Engage and train with local Indigenous nations and bands to facilitate aggressive prescribed burning during the late fall, winter, and early spring

Implementing these recommendations in a timely fashion could mean mitigating subsequent worsening wildfire seasons. Luckily the first recommendation seems to have made its way to the Ministry of Forest, Land and Natural Resource Operations and Rural Developments agenda with Minister Doug Donaldson stating in a news article that he is looking to shift this as a greater priority for the BC Wildfire Service by expanding programs in rural areas. Yet as of late, only 18 percent of all the recommendations from the 2017 Independent Flood and Fire Review have actually been implemented.

The next big step is to start reaching out and rapidly scaling up with Indigenous nations and communities throughout the province and strategizing a way to operationalize the second recommendation in a practical and meaningful fashion. Without maximizing our collective resources we may face worsening wildfire seasons that put more people, communities, and our forestry industry at greater risk of deteriorating quality of life, weakening our resource economy, and threatening socio-cultural ways of life. 

Guilherme Rosales is a Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs student at the University of British Columbia. He has been a wildland firefighter with the BC Wildfire Service for the past five years, a community organizer coordinating neighbourhood block parties from 2011 to 2015 in the Oakridge neighbourhood area of Vancouver, as well as a labour activist and advocate with CUPE 15 and the BCGEU.