One Cool Island: Smoke sends clear signals about our forests

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By ANDREA PALFRAMAN

In the midst of summer’s idyll, there is an ominous haze on the horizon. Clobbered by a record-smashing heatwave, and the tragic fire that destroyed Lytton, the spectre of forest fires looms large in the Gulf Islands. As we consult maps and scan the skies for signs of smoke, we’re all looking to avoid the tragedy unfolding in other B.C. communities. 

Fire is the single biggest climate risk islanders face to their homes, infrastructure and economy. Years of wasteful logging practices, development and climate change have increased fire risk around our islands. Between the accumulation of slash and debris, dried-out soils, fire suppression and compromised watersheds, our forests are tinderboxes when drought and heat descend. 

Native forests — like fire-resistant Coastal Douglas-fir — often fail to regenerate following forest clearing and are replaced in drier areas by highly flammable invasive plants. Just try taking a walk under power lines on Salt Spring and you’ll find deserts of broom and gorse edging out native shrubs and hedgerow species. 

There are actions we can take to protect our island from fires, but they are more complex than the slogans Smokey the Bear taught us. 

We are all very grateful to first-responders who put out fires at Mineral Springs Resort and Windsor Plywood. Quick action prevents small conflagrations from spreading and turning into large-scale fires, which, aside from the devastation they cause to people, pets and wildlife, quickly release decades of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. 

The biggest opportunity we have to mitigate climate change and reduce carbon emissions is to retain trees, especially mature trees, which store more carbon more quickly than their younger counterparts. 

Fire prevention is just as important. We must move away from clearcutting immediately, in favour of selective thinning and other regenerative forestry practices. Forest canopies cool the air and the ground and retain moisture in watersheds, lakes and creeks. Facilitating natural decomposition — dead wet logs don’t burn — and restoring wetlands are critically important practices that are gaining traction. 

To reduce slash — which serves as rocket fuel to hungry fires — chipping, composting, biochar and specially constructed berms known as “Hügelkultur” are smart steps to transform the dangerous dry fire fuel in our forests into moist enriched soils that build drought-resistant ecosystems that retain moisture in a warming climate. Together these practices restore and maintain our water resources to help us get through these periods of summer drought.

Indigenous-led climate adaptation and resilience strategies bring communities full circle, to consider forestry practices informed by the “seven generations” principle. The new reality of wildfires — both their increased magnitude and frequency — is seeing the pendulum swing away from complete fire suppression towards traditional First Nations practices like controlled burns. 

Says MENELOT, knowledge keeper from the WSÁNEC First Nations, “Our people believed in controlled burns, either in early spring or in the late summer. It wasn’t just for the nutrients provided through the ash to feed the new growth in the springtime: it ensured that there would be no wildfires.” Prescribed fires are primarily lit to get rid of built-up tinder — from needles, grasses and twigs to shrubs and fallen branches — and reduce fire risk by depriving wildfires of fuel. 

Native plants are not only beautiful and resilient, but they are also key to reducing wildfire risk. For the past 150 years in B.C., we’ve promoted a culture devoted to removing native plants and installing Kentucky bluegrass lawns, which often involve watering, mowing and herbicide application. These landscaping methods increase the amount of exposure of soils, which heats the ground and dries and compacts the soils, reducing their ability to absorb water. The result? Washouts, landslides, erosion and loss of groundwater recharge. Replacing thirsty plants with hardy locals and diligently eradicating invasive species is a patient practice of horticultural decolonization that mitigates risk while providing nourishment for wildlife and pollinators. 

Salt Spring’s Climate Action Plan offers many such practical, actionable solutions, with a goal to reduce island emissions by 50 per cent by 2030.  A key part of the plan is to develop, fund and implement a comprehensive, island-wide strategy for forest management to reduce forest fire risk. With one-third of forests on Salt Spring enjoying some form of protection, focusing on building up the fire resistance of those precious resources is a critical next step. 

The cool thing is, as we increase our resilience, there are knock-on effects that benefit everyone. If we protect watersheds and enhance forest health, we enhance stream flows and groundwater recharge, leading to reduced fire risks and lessening the severity of drought. If we maintain strong forest canopies we also reduce evaporation from our lakes and streams, reducing lake temperatures (and algal blooms). As anyone who has walked the woods in hot weather can attest, they protect us from extreme heat. As we adopt practices to nurture forest health, we will see the understorey return, providing more nutrients and moisture for trees and leading to reduced vulnerability to fire. 

Protecting our forests and watersheds while employing regenerative forestry practices has three other critical co-benefits: they provide jobs, reduce infrastructure replacement risks and decrease pressure on fire and water district budgets. Imagine the price of potable water if the forests surrounding Maxwell Lake went up in flames. 

June’s unprecedented heatwave is consistent with climate change modelling, which promises many more such events and underscores the need for us to do a U-turn on almost everything we do in our forests.  

Far from being a zero-sum game, we have a tremendous opportunity to come together to protect our communities from fire, protect and rebuild our ecosystems, and provide employment.  

Transition Salt Spring’s brand-new website is bursting with resources and information for folks looking to make Salt Spring an even cooler place to live: for now, and for future generations. Check out the One Cool Island section to find a brand new library, produced in collaboration with the Islands Trust, of graphic and video resources to help us all better steward our forests in a changing climate.  

One Cool Island is a regular series produced by Transition Salt Spring on how we can all respond to the climate crisis, together. Andrea Palframan is a TSS director and communications lead. To find out how you can help, people can visit transitionsaltspring.com.

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