Joe Nemeth: Wildfires have taken too big a toll on B.C.

Joe Nemeth: Wildfires have taken too big a toll on B.C.

Joe Nemeth: Wildfires have taken too big a toll on B.C.

Opinion: As we think about what we can do to prevent or minimize wildfire destruction another question comes to mind: What happens to the millions of fire-damaged trees left in the wake of these big fires?

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For much of this summer, wildfires preoccupied everyone in B.C.

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Communities were evacuated and cut off.

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Hundreds of families lost their homes.

Businesses were destroyed or lost millions of dollars.

Vacations were cancelled, provincial emergencies were declared, and smoke choked the sky — and our lungs on some days.

When the wildfire season mercifully ended in November, 2,217 wildfires (about 70 per cent of which were caused by lightning strikes, the rest caused by people) had been counted, 2.8 million hectares of land had been burned, including forested and non-forested land, and more than $770 million had been spent fighting fires and protecting communities.

It was awful but so, too, were other recent big fire years — 2017, 2018, and 2021. All told, since 2010 the total area consumed by wildfire in B.C. totals more than 6.9 million hectares, or about eight per cent of B.C.’s land mass, according to public info from the B.C. wildfire website.

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These catastrophic losses cannot continue.

The premier has appointed a task force to study this year’s fire season and develop ideas about what can be done. The pulp and paper sector applauds the premier for making wildfire risk reduction and salvage a priority, but challenges the need for another task force to add recommendations to those of previous studies and analyses.

We know what to do and we need to act now. The top four steps we can take include:

• Streamlining the cutting permit approval process for fire-damaged trees (as there is only a one-year window before trees dry out and split and are no longer suitable for making lumber);

• Creating fire breaks with roads and small openings;

• Removing fuel sources around small communities through brushing and thinning; and

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• Making better use of First Nations historical practices such as cultural burning.

These are proven practices that have been used historically in B.C. and elsewhere. Finland, for example, uses all these practices and has seen fire losses reduced to 323 hectares per year over the past 10 years. (B.C. by comparison has experienced over 1,000 times the fire losses — losing more than 407,000 hectares per year during the same 10-year period.)

As we think about what we can do to prevent or minimize wildfire destruction on this year’s scale another question comes to mind: What happens to the millions of fire-damaged trees left in the wake of these big fires?

Some of the land burned was not forested. Accordingly, if we use a conservative estimate of one hundred cubic metres of timber per hectare of land in B.C., this means that our province might have about 690 million cubic metres of fire-damaged timber, most of which is being left to decay.

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In other areas, such as those used by hikers, hunters, and other outdoors enthusiasts, fire-damaged trees are a serious hazard as they are unstable and easily fall over in wind. Here it makes sense for these trees to be removed so that seedlings can be planted to generate new forests and wildlife habitat that protect streams and slopes.

And there is a ready use for that burned fibre in the province’s pulp and paper mills and sawmills. In fact, the pulp and paper sector is keen to be part of the solution by taking up to five million cubic metres of burnt wood every year.

The pulp and paper industry has been an economic power in B.C. for more than 100 years. The 13 mills operating across B.C. today provide jobs for 20,000 people, when indirect and induced jobs are accounted for, and export value-added products around the world.

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But the industry has a problem — a shortage of fibre to run those mills. We are currently operating at about 80 per cent capacity, mainly due to a fibre shortfall of about two million cubic metres annually — a tiny percentage of all that fire-damaged wood left across B.C. It shouldn’t be that hard to access that fibre and get it into these mills so that jobs and communities and international markets can be sustained.

One problem is that cutting permits from the Ministry of Forests are still taking up to one year to process, and by this time much of that fire-damaged fibre has degraded and is no longer suitable for making lumber.

Fire-damaged timber is worth much less than healthy green trees, and so the cost to industry of accessing, processing, and transporting this fibre can’t be made up by its value. Government assistance addressing transportation costs would go a long way toward incentivizing the industry to use this available fibre.

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Every British Columbian loves our magnificent forests and is saddened by the losses caused by wildfires and the health risks posed by thick smoke. We all want to protect those forests. We want to protect the residents of places like West Kelowna, Monte Creek, and Port Alberni from losing their homes and businesses.

At the same time, we want those dozens of small towns economically dependent on the forest industry, including pulp and paper mills, to thrive.

We can have both.

The plain point is that without cutting down a single green, healthy tree there is far more than enough fibre available in fire-damaged stands to keep a vital industry running. We just need a little will from government to speed up permitting decisions, direct funding to allow the use of wood waste and fire damaged stands to continue and grow, and to introduce a program to support thinning around communities to safeguard them from fire risk.

Joe Nemeth is the general manager of the B.C. Pulp and Paper Coalition.

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