Forestry companies, BC Wildfire Service at times butt heads on how to manage fires

BCWS, forestry firm at odds

While the BC Wildfire Service has called upon forestry companies to battle wildfires all summer, changing attitudes of how fire is managed on the landscape appear to be running up against the motivations of logging companies.

Castanet News has obtained an email sent by forestry company Louisiana-Pacific to BCWS earlier this month, detailing the protests of the company after being told to stop building guard around the Crazy Creek Gorge FSR fire north of Sicamous.

The email states Louisiana-Pacific and its contractors were told to stand down after constructing about 80 per cent guard along the east flank of the fire. The stop-work order was issued due to concerns related to safety and lack of awareness related to logger’s suppression efforts on that side of the fire, the email says.

In the email, a Louisiana-Pacific representative disputes those claims and argues that BCWS staff were well aware of their plans, but they would start pulling resources from the fire lines under protest.

The company goes on to outline the massive impact wildfires are having on timber values in the BC Southern Interior.

Louisiana-Pacific operates a relatively small forest license in Malakwa, harvesting about 350-400 hectares a year.

At the time that the email was written, the Crazy Creek Gorge FSR fire and nearby Hunakwa fire had scorched about 4,200 hectares of bush, with roughly 1,500 hectares of that being harvestable forest.

Louisiana-Pacific said 1,500 hectares of harvestable forest equates to four years of operations for the company in the area and $60 million in economic activity for the area.

The provincial government's share of that harvest in the form of stumpage fees would be between $10 and $15 million, the email continues. Other losses include plantations that need replanting and blocks that have already been replanted, but have not yet reached maturity.

Louisiana-Pacific suggested if their losses were converted province-wide to the 670,000 hectares burned at the time — a figure that has since grown to 858,292 hectares — economic losses would equate to $6 billion with direct stumpage fee losses of $1 billion.

The company called BCWS firefighting spending a “drop in the bucket” when compared to the impact of wildfires on the economy.

“BCWS was originally created to protect forest resources and put out forest fires. The forest resources being dropped to the bottom of action lists and current let it burn policies in place, it is very clear that economic losses indicate that a policy change is needed to stop the bleeding and save money,” the Louisiana-Pacific representative said to BCWS.

“My expressed disappointment by the current decision makers should be clear as I watch one of our most productive operable areas burn up,” the email concluded.

BCWS response

BCWS director of fire centre operations Rob Schweitzer told Castanet Friday that forestry contractors have since returned to the Shuswap fire lines under the direct supervision of provincial crews. Evacuation orders and alerts were also lifted around both the Hunakwa and Crazy Creek fires Friday.

Schweitzer explained that the stop-work order was issued by the incident command team to allow them to “clarify” objectives.

“Because there were some big burning days coming ahead last week, they were concerned about maybe the safety of the crews on site and readjusted those objectives to make sure that everybody remained safe,” Schweitzer said.

Forestry companies have been actively fighting wildfires in B.C. since early in July. Leaked minutes from a meeting between BCWS and industry groups on July 12 show how the provincial government welcomed the help of logging companies in fighting backcountry fires while BCWS focused on protecting communities and infrastructure.

As a result, forestry companies were tasked with fighting wildfires with “limited supervision.” Castanet has heard from contractors fighting wildfires in B.C. that “limited supervision” has led to odd tactical decisions being made at times.

“As with any emergency situation there are scenarios that could have been handled differently,” Schweitzer told Castanet Friday.

Schweitzer said while the BC Wildfire Service will always protect communities and infrastructure first, that doesn’t mean they don’t try to protect timber assets. But with wildfire being a natural part of the landscape, there are some fires that are better off being let to burn.

“The decision of I would say, our province, given the economics around the timber industry, has led us down a path where we've gotten really good at suppressing wildfire for 60-80 years — that is contributing to some of the challenges that we see today,” Schweitzer said.

“I don't think that's a secret,” he added.

“When you suppress wildfire from a fire ecosystem, and then you add that to the climate that we're seeing changing. The ability for us to build to control or stop fire is becoming more and more limited.”

Jesse Zeman of the BC Wildlife Federation made that case earlier this week in a widely-shared op-ed in the Vancouver Sun, where he said “archaic management has turned our forests into an overstuffed matchbox.”

“In much of the Interior, fire is an integral component of functioning and productive habitat for grizzly bears, moose, elk, mule deer, and sheep, creating food for wildlife by regenerating the soil and letting in sunlight, which creates ideal conditions for new plants and berries to grow,” Zeman said.

Indigenous communities have used fire for thousands of years to “garden” forests in a process also known as “cultural burning," but have been prevented from doing so until recently as attitudes have shifted.

Schweitzer says recent years have been a “balancing act” for BCWS in regards to protecting timber values and the ecological benefits of fire. He said BCWS is more likely to let a fire burn if it’s late in the season, the snow is not far off and it is burning away from communities.

When asked if the forest industry is on board with the evolving attitudes of managing fire in the ecosystem, Schweitzer said most registered professional foresters are well aware of the benefits of fire.

“It's just like anything, we don't want to see something of value burn. However, there is, there are certain ecosystems and certain types of situations were leaving fire in what we call a modified response — where we monitor the activity on that fire and maybe do less suppression efforts… anybody in the forest sector understands that that is a part of the natural ecosystem and the natural disturbance pattern.”

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