B.C. communities at risk of “mega fires” due to climate change

Forest fire

In the not-so-distant future, “mega fires” will sweep across areas of British Columbia and the province’s current firefighting methods will not be able to manage them.

According to a draft of a report by the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations, these “mega fires” are considered extreme events that are predicted to increase as climate change progresses.

The report warns that the Southern Interior fire size is expected to double from an average of 7,961 hectres to 19,076 hectares. Overall, fire severity is predicted to increase by 40 percent in the spring, 95 percent in the summer, and 30 percent in the fall. The fire season is expected increase in length and frequency by 30 percent.

In addition to climate change, the mountain pine beetle infestation will have a huge affect on the prevalence of forest fires in the region. By 2017, 17.5 million hectares of pine forest will have been affected by the beetles. These areas are especially vulnerable to wild fires as they burn 2.6 times faster than healthy trees. Every year, 800,000 hectares of trees die due to the beetle infestations.

Rather than fighting fires after they’ve already started, the report notes that proactive fire planning can prevent them from getting out of control in the first place. The prevention plan includes building larger buffer zones around structures, ensuring communities are “wildfire adapted,” and making forests less in danger of extreme fires.

The report suggests that homeowners and landowners need to take the necessary steps to make their space safe, such as building with fire-resistant materials and managing vegetation.

In the summer of 2003, a firestorm in the Okanagan forced the evacuation of 27,000 residents and consumed more than 230 homes, burning down most of the trees in Okanagan Mountain Park. Since then, wildfire protection has increased. In 2009 and 2010, several communities including Kelowna were spared major wildfire damages due to these new initiatives. But the report maintains that more changes are needed to properly protect the communities of B.C.

“Even though British Columbia has a world class wildfire response agency, it is not an option to increase fire suppression response resources and associated costs, because even the most aggressive action would neither be safe or effective for the extreme wildfire events.”