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Fire ecologist touts prescribed fuel treatment to limit large wildfires

Prescribed fire activities in the spring saved the Cranbrook airport from St. Mary’s River wildfire
Bob Gray, a local wildland fire ecologist, warned that modelling suggests future wildfire seasons are going to be worse, while also touting the benefits of prescribed fuel treatments. Photo is from the ʔaq’am prescribed burn in April that treated approximately 1,200 hectares. Colleen Ross photo.

This past summer was the worst wildfire season in B.C. history, with a number of devastating fires that ignited close to home in the East Kootenay.

Provincially, wildfires burned over 2.8 million hectares, although the Kootenay region had the lowest amount of hectares burned at 44,025 hectares. However a number of large wildfires destroyed homes in the ʔaq’am community north of Cranbrook and threatened other parts of the East Kootenay, particularly in the Elk Valley and Columbia Valley.

Bob Gray, a wildland fire ecologist, gave a dire warning about future wildfire seasons during a presentation to the Regional District of East Kootenay board on Nov. 10.

“We can expect what just happened and worse in the future,” Gray said. “Most of the modelling suggests we can see a doubling and tripling of area burned in the future. It’s going to have significant impacts on natural resources and also significant impacts on human health.”

This past wildfire season hit close to home, as the St. Mary’s River wildfire burned seven homes in ʔaq’am, growing to over 40 square kilometers and touching off evacuation orders and alerts for nearly the entire community.

The Lladnar Creek wildfire burned down the side of a mountain ridge, threatening Sparwood, while a complex of three large wildfires in the Columbia Valley led to evacuation alerts for Panorama and other remote areas.

Gray is leading a research team funded by the First Nations Emergency Services Society that will be modelling fire behaviour over 2.8 million hectares of land in the Cranbrook and Invermere Timber Supply Area (TSA), and the Elk Valley Tree Farm License area.

“The goal of that is to try to understand the pattern of fire flow across the landscape,” Gray said. “So we’ve built this very complicated modelling structure and we just start fires everywhere under different weather conditions and we see where fire constantly wants to go, it’s sort of a burn probability exercise.

“And then we start to layer on all the various treatments that we can do on that landscape with the goal of starting to reduce the size and severity of these fires.”

When it comes to mitigating the effects of large wildfires, mimicking traditional Indigenous stewardship principles will go a long way, through cultural burning practices.

“They used fire for survival and they managed the landscape in such a way that it provided food security,” said Gray. “In the process, they created a mosaic of forest types and vegetation types and structures that just didn’t support these kinds of large fires.

“So we have to start to look aggressively at that type of a model if we’re going to get out of this crisis anytime soon.”

No more apparent an example was the prescribed treatment led by ʔaq’am in April, which treated nearly 1,300 hectares of community lands.

Concurrently, a City of Cranbrook-led burn over 80 hectares served a guard against the larger ʔaq’am treatment, which protected the east side of the Canadian Rockies International Airport.

Gray broke down the timeline of the St. Mary’s River wildfire growth and behaviour, as it quickly spread across the landscape before running up against the area that had been previously treated earlier in the spring.

The wildfire started on July 17, due to downed power lines on the landscape during heavy winds.

On the first day, winds pushed the fire eastwards, the second day winds pushed the fire north, but on the third day, winds pushed the fire westward towards the airport.

“The burn we did in the springtime stopped it, it prevented the airport loss,” said Gray. “Talking to BC Wildfire Service colleagues, they felt that it probably would’ve taken out the airport, plus 80 to 100 homes and could’ve made a run towards Marysville.”

The wildfire also ran into an area on the north flank that underwent fuel treatment in 2018, which slowed its growth and allowed firefighters to safely attack it.

“That’s an example of the kind of treatments that we’re going to have to do,” Gray said. “The lesson from this example is that we didn’t treat enough.”

However, prescribed fuel treatments can be a complex planning exercise that requires more than just an ignition on the landscape, whether it’s mechanical thinning ahead of time to create better burn conditions, or finding ways to incentivize private property owners with large swaths of untreated landscapes.

Treating private land on the southern end of Cranbrook is a challenge, particularly in the Gold Creek area, according to Gray.

The City has approximately 1,000 hectares of land in the lower Gold Creek area around the Phillips Reservoir, as Gray noted two prescribed burns are planned for next spring.

Cranbrook city councillor Norma Blissett, who sits on the RDEK board, endorsed prescribed fuel treatment projects and expressed her concern about the potential fire danger on the southern flank of the city.

“We need to do more of this, we really need to be looking at land south of town,” said Blissett. “I am quite concerned about the private lands in Gold Creek that lie between the crown lands further south of that and the city, because I’m quite concerned about the fire hazard moving from the south.

“That is relevant to the Regional District because we need to put programs in place to work with private landowners to reduce the fire hazard on their properties to also protect the City of Cranbrook.”

Additionally, representatives from the Ministry of Forests will be hosting a meeting later this month to discuss fuel mitigation work being planned for the east side of the Cranbrook Community Forest.

The Rocky Mountain District Crown Land Wildfire Risk Reduction team will be making a presentation while attendees can provide feedback on the draft fuel management prescription map.

That meeting, open to the public, will be held on Nov. 30 at 7 p.m. in the Manual Training School adjacent to the Cranbrook Public Library.

Trevor Crawley

About the Author: Trevor Crawley

Trevor Crawley has been a reporter with the Cranbrook Townsman and Black Press in various roles since 2011.
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