Smithers, B.C. – Situated in the heart of the Bulkley Valley and surrounded by the Town of Smithers, the Village of Telkwa, and the Village of Witset, the Wetzin’kwa Community Forest Corporation (WCFC) has taken on two key roles: as a steward of the land and as a provider of outdoor recreational opportunities for surrounding communities. This significance is underscored by the recent allocation of funds from the Forest Enhancement Society of BC (FESBC) toward a wildfire risk reduction project. With the funding, the WCFC aims to expand a crucial shaded fuel break (where some trees are removed to reduce fuel and some are left standing to create shade) along the Hudson Bay Mountain Road (which is used to access recreational areas). This treatment is a proactive measure against the ever-present risk of wildfire. The project also showcases the community forest’s commitment to integrating the management of natural spaces with the safety and enjoyment of the local residents in mind.
“B.C. has experienced a devastating wildfire season, and given the effects of climate change, mitigating wildfire risk is vital for keeping people, communities and First Nations in B.C. safe – now more than ever,” said Bruce Ralston, Minister of Forests. “FESBC has undertaken many wildfire risk reduction projects, bringing concrete benefits in areas throughout the province. It is encouraging to see this effort continue in the Bulkley Valley in partnership with the Wetzin’kwa Community Forest Corporation.”
For the past several years, WCFC has diligently focused on reducing the wildfire risk within the community forest, and a shaded fuel break supports this goal. Although there are unknowns when it comes to fire behaviour and severity (drought, temperature, wind, etc.), a shaded fuel break is expected to balance forestry and social values by reducing wildfire risk to the community and creating a defensible location for wildfire crews in the event of a major wildfire.
Hudson Bay Mountain Road is an essential transportation corridor for Bulkley Valley residents, connecting them to recreational skiing, snowboarding, hunting, and fishing spots. The road is also a gateway to Hudson Bay Mountain Resort and Bulkley Valley Nordic Centre. The area’s significance extends beyond its role in recreation as this area also supports diverse ecosystems, including grizzly bears and rare whitebark pine, and is an iconic location in the Bulkley Valley and Wetzin’kwa Community Forest. The shaded fuel break is expected to help mitigate risk to these key community resources as well as provide access for fire crews and safe egress (escape) routes for the public.
Aurora Lavender, general manager of WCFC said, “We are very grateful to FESBC for providing funding for the creation of our 2018 Strategic Wildfire Hazard Mitigation Plan (SWHMP) and this new funding for the implementation of work we are doing to create the shaded fuel break on Hudson Bay Mountain Road.”
The work on the treatment areas is underway and will continue for the next several years. These areas planned for treatments with support from FESBC funding were identified as high-priority regions under the 2018 Strategic Wildfire Hazard Mitigation Plan (SWHMP), to conduct wildfire risk reduction work. These areas were targeted due to the hazardous stand types such as diseased and dead trees, and overcrowded trees in the area, the proximity to the Town of Smithers, and the protection of local assets and recreational spaces and business resources for the communities of Smithers, Telkwa, and Witset.
Village of Telkwa Mayor Leroy Dykens also expressed gratitude and said, “We are extremely grateful to the Forest Enhancement Society of BC for providing funding toward wildfire risk reduction planning and project implementation for the Hudson Bay Mountain Road project. This work is vital in helping better protect the forests, recreational areas, infrastructure, and the public. Given the tremendous increase in wildfires in the Northwest region, it is evident that we need to do whatever we can to help mitigate forest fire concerns.”
Execution of this project involves a combination of manual and mechanical treatments administered by local contractors, including a Wet’suwet’en contractor. The work includes the removal of dead trees and reducing the number of trees through a commercial thinning phase, followed by decreasing the ladder fuels (live and dead vegetation which would otherwise allow a fire to go from the ground to the tops of trees) to more manageable levels per the treatment plans. This isn’t a one-off wildfire risk reduction measure and the WCFC will be continuing to collaborate with the BC Wildfire Service for subsequent maintenance treatments to ensure sustained efficacy.
FESBC Senior Manager, Gord Pratt said, “FESBC is very excited to be able to provide the funding to assist the Wetzin’kwa Community Forest Corporation to reduce the wildfire risk to this very important area to the residents of the Bulkley Valley. Previously, as a longtime resident of Smithers and Telkwa, I am pleased that our organization is able to support this project to reduce the wildfire risk to the many forest and recreation values I personally know are so important to everyone who resides and plays here.”
Over the years, WCFC has actively championed social initiatives advocating for the adoption of wildfire risk reduction strategies and has worked closely with the Skeena-Stikine Natural Resource District and the local BC Wildfire Service staff to do so. WCFC’s development of the SWHMP was timely and crucial toward creating strategies for reducing wildfire risk to the surrounding communities.
As recommended in the SWHMP, WCFC purchased the Wetzin’kwa Fire Trailer in 2019. This year, a small fire broke out within the community forest boundary. The Power’s Creek Fire was 34 hectares in size, and several residential evacuations resulted due to the fire’s proximity to private properties. The Wetzin’kwa Fire Trailer was deployed to the fire and assisted the Smithers Volunteer Firefighters in defending private properties and infrastructure.
FESBC’s executive director, Steve Kozuki said, “Community forests in British Columbia are owned by the communities themselves. As such, they manage their forests with the best interests of people in mind. Local forests managed by local people result in prioritization of what’s important to them—wildfire risk reduction, wildlife habitat, green energy from forest biomass, jobs for workers, and so on. When they do make a profit, that money goes back into the community for the benefit of their citizens”.
WCFC’s commitment to reducing wildfire risk extends beyond the immediate project. The community forest will continue exploring avenues to curtail wildfire risk in other sections, particularly within the Wildland-Urban Interface, and is dedicated to supporting community resiliency and fostering public education specific to wildfires.
“WCFC continues to invest in community safety and hopes to foster public education by creating linkages between wildfire risk reduction and FireSmart practices,” said Lavender.
LINDSAY LANGE (VILLAGE OF TELKWA WCFC DIRECTOR):
“The Hudson Bay Mountain Road Fuel Break was identified as an area in our planning requiring treatments outside the scope of our regular operations. Support from FESBC helps make wildfire risk reduction programs economically feasible for community forests, which in turn helps better protect communities from the threat of wildfires.”
“The Wetzin’kwa Community Forest is a well-loved and heavily-used area of the Bulkley Valley. Many different user groups take advantage of its cultural, ecological, recreational, community, and economic values. Everyone benefits from the Community Forest, so protecting these values is something the Village of Telkwa is proud to support.”
GARY HANSON (TOWN OF SMITHERS WCFC DIRECTOR):
“The 2023 wildfire between Telkwa and Smithers, in the Wetzin’kwa Community Forest, demonstrated that fire poses a significant risk to our communities. Mitigating that risk with projects such as the fuel break work on Hudson Bay Mountain Road, will definitely help to better protect our forests and communities from wildfire.”
DAVID DE WIT (Office of Wet’suwet’en representative on the WCFC Board):
“We are proud of the Wetzin’kwa Community Forest general management team at Silvicon, and their collaboration with the Forest Enhancement Society to mitigate wildfire risk for communities. Understanding community values is a part of Yintah (land) stewardship; however, when projects are actioned that protect and promote the eco-cultural, recreation and economic values, meaningful Yintah management is achieved.”
FESBC would like to gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Province of British Columbia through the Ministry of Forests.