Salt Spring will soon see groundbreaking research and interventions for fire risk and resilience in one of its most important watersheds, as a Transition Salt Spring project has secured $100,000 in federal funding and other support.
The Maxwell Lake watershed will be the site of a collaborative project involving researchers from multiple universities, Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue, North Salt Spring Waterworks District (NSSWD), Salt Spring Island Water Preservation Society (SSIWPS) and the Salt Spring Island Conservancy (SSIC). The project is being funded by a $100,000 commitment from Environment and Climate Change Canada’s EcoAction Fund, $25,000 from a private donor on the island and work-in-kind offered by NSSWD.
Ruth Waldick, a research scientist who heads up climate action plan implementation with Transition Salt Spring, said the project will start with experts in fire ecology, forestry and biology walking the land of the just over one-square-kilometre watershed. They will collect qualitative and quantitative information from different parts of the watershed, creating a database and maps to identify ideal areas to receive treatment.
While the community has done very well protecting large swaths of second-growth forest around Maxwell Lake, Waldick explained that logging on the Gulf Islands left behind “legacy fuel loads on the ground and forests that were not healthy.” These second-growth forests have many trees of the same age planted too densely together, not thriving, and a lack of healthy vegetation growing in the understory, the area of the forest between the forest floor and the canopy.
A study done over 10 years ago found there was extreme fire risk in the watershed, due to fuels on the ground. If the forests have been functioning as they should, Waldick said, ideally these fuels would have decomposed and no longer pose a fire risk. Part of the project will be a re-assessment of this risk.
Experts from SFU and UBC, as well as Washington and Oregon universities where fires and heat domes have been affecting their forests for longer and with higher intensity, will be consulted on various options for treating the forest to reduce fire risk and build resilience. This will also include connecting with fire stewards from the WSÁNEC community, for “insights and advice on how they historically and traditionally have used fire to manage fuel loads and also to enhance the health of these ecological systems,” Waldick said.
Treatments could include green fire breaks or berms or recovering the understory using fencing.
“We want to identify those areas that look like they would be a place where a fire could gain ground, and then to identify potential treatments that could be done to mitigate that,” Waldick said.
The project will be the first research of its kind on fire risk and mitigation strategies in the Gulf Islands’ unique forest ecosystem, and groups from other Gulf Islands will also be involved.
Coastal Douglas-fir ecosystems are not uniform throughout and the watershed area itself contains a lot of biodiversity, as well as multiple “ecological communities,” Waldick explained. These include Garry oak meadows, forested areas with coastal Douglas-fir and other species such as hemlock, arbutus forests and areas with western red cedar.
“From our perspective, as a model for this project it’s excellent,” Waldick said, as the team is able to look at “fuel loads on the ground, canopy and subcanopy structure” as well as forest health, fire risk and biodiversity in multiple ecological communities. The project and the treatments cannot be done in a one-size-fits-all approach, as each area may respond differently to different treatments.
A large part of the work will be restoration and looking at natural techniques to help forests recover. When in a healthy state, Waldick explained, forests ward off fire risk and also ensure watershed health by, among other functions, cooling air temperatures, growing naturally fire-resistant plants, helping water infiltrate the ground and replenish groundwater supply, warding off landslides and flash floods.
“In order to be resilient . . . in the future, we need to restore some of the natural functioning in these systems so that they are not going to be vulnerable to fire that could enter the forest,” she said.
Captain Mitchell Sherrin with the fire department said human activity is behind the vast majority of wildfires on the island, with the main causes backyard burns get out of control or campfires that are unattended or improperly managed. The fire department will be involved, Sherrin said, in education events and developing educational material that could come from this project.
“If a forest fire wiped through there, it would be a major, major disaster for Salt Spring, wiping out at least 40 per cent of our water supply for many, many years,” said NSSWD trustee Gary Gagné.
While fire is a natural process in a forest, without trees to store rainfall, all of the ash and debris left by the fire could get washed into the lake during heavy rainfall. The debris and warming temperatures would result in eutrophication, Waldick explained, and potential cyanobacterial, or algal, blooms in the lake.
“It’s a long-term problem,” Gagné explained, as the underbrush takes years to build up, “and it would really, really devastate this island because we don’t have enough water.”
Right now, everything south of the Country Grocer complex is supplied by Maxwell Lake, he said, and the system is set up to be able to feed water out of Maxwell Lake if the supply from St. Mary Lake is disrupted but not vice versa.
Transition Salt Spring will turn to the partners who own or protect most of the land in the watershed to see which actions can be taken. By the end of 2022, Waldick said the hope is to have community members — arborists, landscapers, foresters — implement the treatments.
The project is part of Transition Salt Spring’s overall goal to seek out clear, scientifically based actions people can take to reduce impacts of climate change, Waldick said. Information gleaned from the project will go out to the community in real time, she added, so that people can take action on their own properties where the vast majority of Salt Spring’s forests are located.