This fall 14 young adults, age 19 to 30, spent five weeks thinning four hectares of forest in West Arm Park just above Nelson. The road to Nelson’s water supply on Five Mile Creek runs through that forest, and their work will ensure safe access in the event of a wildfire in the park.
Forester John Cathro was one of their trainers for this work. He’s proud of them. But he’s also daunted.
“That was 14 people working for five weeks,” he says. “We need hundreds of thousands of people across the country in every community doing it for the next decade.”
The Youth Climate Corps, run by the East Kootenay environmental group Wildsight with funding from the federal and provincial governments (including the BC Wildfire Service for this project) were trained beforehand on how to use a chainsaw and how to safely burn their slash, as well as the science behind wildfire mitigation.
“Other jobs I’ve had have been indoors,” says Ella Korth, who took part in the project. “It was really nice to work a physical job and learn some skills like running a chainsaw and learning how to build fires safely. I really liked the whole thing. All of it.”
The group’s enthusiasm and youthful commitment made up for their lack of experience, their supervisors say.
“They were great, because they’re so gung-ho and so energetic and asked really thoughtful, insightful questions,” says BC Parks’ Amanda Weber-Roy.
Cathro says they did a very good job of this unfamiliar activity.
“We’ve learned there’s a lot of exceptional young people out there who really want to get involved, given the opportunity,” he says. “Some of these people have just graduated from high school and some of them have been graduated from college two or three years ago. They were very, very diverse.”
Cathro has a dual role in this project. He is one of the forest consultants who, over the past few years, has identified and mapped the fire-susceptible areas in the park. Independent of that, he is a co-founder of the Climate Corps, which, in addition to this work, has also been doing projects related to food security and energy retrofits.
The Climate Corps workers thinned and burned slash in four hectares of forest. Weber-Roy says there are up to 400 hectares in the park that need work, and that will take years, depending on the level of funding and capacity.
“But there’s all those pieces of private land as well [near the park and the city],” she adds. “The homeowners really have to step up. Otherwise, our fuel breaks can only go so far.”
Korth says before she took the training for this project, she thought the best way to relate to forests was simply to leave them alone and not disturb them.
“I thought that would result in the healthiest ecosystem or forests,” she says.
But in her training she learned how for more than a century, forest managers have suppressed all wildfires, interfering with a natural cycle and overloading forests with accumulations of dry fuel that have become an unprecedented fire hazard.
“So now for the healthiest ecosystem,” she says, “we actually have to go in and manipulate the forest and selectively prune and do all these things because that makes the forest more resilient. This was quite surprising for me.”
Korth says she also learned there are many differing opinions on how to manage forests and that there are a lot of players and interests — companies, different levels of government, citizens groups — so it’s complicated.
Youth participant Linn Murray said he learned that reducing wildfire fuel load can go hand in hand with increasing biodiversity in the forest.
“There’s this growing line of evidence about how [this way to] protect our community is also a way to restore biodiversity and to make our forests closer to what they used to be,” he says.
“It was really good to look at the research behind that what’s happening in other communities in North America, where they’re looking at how they can mitigate fire, and also restore biodiversity,” Murray says.
This fits with his reason for joining the Youth Climate Corps in the first place. He says he wanted to serve the community while taking concrete actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Young people are in desperate need of tangible projects, which reduce emissions while creating employment,” he says. “I believe that a Youth Climate Corps is a powerful tool to offer valuable labour and inspiration to a community as we build a new sustainable world together.”