Reducing Wildfire Risk in Northern B.C.

Houston, B.C. – a project to reduce wildfire risk, establish a defensible fuel-free zone, and modify the amount of forest fuels has been successfully completed south of the District of Houston (the District) through Forest Enhancement Society of BC (FESBC) funding. The project took a large-scale effort of the District, BC Wildfire Service (BCWS), Houston’s Fire Chief, the Ministry of Forests, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, and several other stakeholders working together.

Leading the wildfire risk reduction project for the District was Pro-Tech Forest Resources Ltd. (Pro-Tech). The project’s goals were to reduce wildfire risks in areas identified in the 2018 Houston Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) and establish a defensible fuel-free zone for future fire personnel. The project in total covered a 9.7 km long, 1,202.1 hectares interface zone (which is equivalent to 2,247 football fields) along the southwest boundary of the District, collaborating closely with government and industry professionals. Despite delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the project was completed successfully, including planting 330,000 trees in July 2022.

“The Forest Enhancement Society of BC is a proven partner in delivering projects on the ground that benefit communities, workers, and the health of our forests,” said Bruce Ralston, Minister of Forests. “We are building on this foundation with an additional investment of $50 million for the Society to expand funding for projects that increase access to fibre, reduce emissions from slash pile burning and reduce the risk to people from wildfire.”

In many ways, the project was in response to the Swiss Wildfire in 1983 that burned over 18,000 hectares of forest in Houston. The fire destroyed seven residences, damaged other important infrastructure, and significant suppression costs. “The Swiss Wildfire made the community aware that a wildfire threat was real and has very real consequences for people and communities. Homes were lost in that fire, and media reports indicated there was a real threat to the community. I believe that the fires in Kelowna in the summer of 2003, and the following provincial report that followed (Firestorm 2003) are what helped initiate the current risk reduction efforts in Houston,” noted Scott Rowsell, President, Pro-Tech Forest Resources.

In 2005, Pro-Tech prepared Houston’s first CWPP, and wildfire risk reduction work began soon after, led by Doug McRae, another local forestry professional. These activities were carried out in many high-risk zones around the community and included thinning and pruning trees, ground cleanup, and overstory removal. The Houston CWPP was updated a few years later using the latest science and research, and further identified the area between Buck Flats Road and the Morice Forest Service Road as a high-risk area for a wildfire due to the high combustibility and density of dead and dry vegetation. This zone to the South of the community became the project area where work occurred with FESBC funding.

Gord Pratt, Senior Manager, FESBC, said, “FESBC also recognized the risk to the community of Houston was pleased to provide funding that enabled this collaborative and innovated wildfire risk reduction project to be completed that will reduce the risk of wildfire to the community for many years to come.” 

Rebecca Werner, project manager with Pro-Tech, managed the project with the overall goals of getting value for what was logged and reducing forest fuels that posed a hazard to the District. “Without collaboration, this project would not have been successful as it was. Without everyone believing in the project and assisting us in various ways, we would never have been able to complete the program. Fuel reduction is a team effort!” said Werner.

BCWS played a vital role with their extensive knowledge of fire behavior and specific training related to risk reduction and provided guidance on fuel modification plans and strategies to reduce risks. They also assisted in developing stocking standards, burn plans, and providing the professionals needed for large broadcast burns. BC Timber Sales and Canadian Forest Products prepared the ground for fuel modification activities and the Ministry of Forests provided guidance for special treatment recommendations for sensitive riparian zones.

In total, six prescribed burn plans were prepared by Derek Smith, project manager with Pro-Tech, then peer-reviewed by several layers of industry professionals. These plans allowed the effective use of large-scale broadcast burns during the project treatments and will assist in maintenance burns going forward. “Broadcast burning is by far the most impactful and cost-effective tool for wildfire risk reduction,” said Smith.

The project team also included Houston Fire Chief Jim Daigneault. “Chief Daigneault’s involvement throughout the project was very important,” noted Rowsell. “He was able to steer the project planning to fit with the overall goals for the community and provided us with open communication with the District throughout the project.”

Adaptation was as critical to the project as collaboration was, and flexibility was required. The original plan to reduce fire risk by promoting deciduous trees was revised mid-project due to new research showing an increased risk of ground fires. The project pivoted to a new wildfire stocking standard, and 380,000 pine and birch seedlings were planted. Treatment options balanced fuel reduction with the integrity of riparian zones, and economic interests were integrated into the fuel-free fire guard. “These large wildfire risk reduction projects are complicated with many moving parts, but ultimately they are well worth the efforts in the end,” noted Rowsell specifically for other Districts contemplating wildfire risk reduction projects in the future.

The project provided contract opportunities and employment, even through COVID-19 mandates for manual fuel modification crews, wildfire contract crews, project supervision, and mechanical fuel modification. It allowed a variety of training opportunities for the local provincial wildfire crews such as prescribed broadcast burning ignition, and hand ignition techniques, and new firefighters were exposed to water systems and mop-up, helicopter ignition, etc. The result is a significant area along the southern part of the community of Houston that has undergone wildfire risk reduction treatments.  

FESBC would like to gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Province of British Columbia through the Ministry of Forests.

Wildfire Risk Reduction Project an Example of Collaboration

Nelson, B.C. – the Selous Creek Wildfire Risk Reduction Project near Nelson, B.C. has demonstrated that it is possible to harvest trees to reduce wildfire risk while maintaining cultural, ecological, recreational, and aesthetic values. With funding from the Forest Enhancement Society of BC (FESBC) and partnerships among regional, municipal and provincial governments, fire services, and a local timber licensee, a wildfire risk reduction project is a prime example of collaboration to better protect a community.

“The Forest Enhancement Society of BC is a proven partner in delivering projects on the ground that benefit communities, workers, and the health of our forests,” said Bruce Ralston, Minister of Forests. “We are building on this foundation with an additional investment of $50 million for the Society to expand funding for projects that increase access to fibre, reduce emissions from slash pile burning and reduce the risk to people from wildfire.”

In the last few years, wildfires have threatened and significantly impacted many communities due to their higher intensity and increased severity. With the community of Nelson being identified as strategically important by the Community Wildfire Protection Plan for the city, the Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK), with several stakeholders, took steps to reduce the risk of wildfire in the area.

“The Kootenays are a unique place. The area incubates and attracts people with ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas and our elected officials and staff are the proxy of the residents of the RDCK,” said Angela French, RFT, Wildfire Mitigation Supervisor with the RDCK. “The inspiration for our wildfire risk reduction project was the residents’ concerns about wildfire and the risks associated with the changing climate. RDCK Regional Fire Chief Nora Hannon was instrumental in making this program what it is today, and my predecessor Joel Hamilton, continued that legacy.”

Since 2017, the project has made significant strides in its goal to reduce the risk of wildfire. Operating area tenure holder Kalesnikoff Lumber Company (Kalesnikoff) completed 80 hectares of mechanical harvesting or removing trees using machines. Ground-based mechanical fuel modification, or piling additional debris left after harvest, was completed on 20 hectares. Adjacent to the harvested areas and along the Vein bike trail, an additional 5.5 hectares of understory, or layer of vegetation that grows beneath the trees, was treated by hand to thin and remove some of the fuel load. An additional 7.5 hectares of understory hand treatment was completed along the Great Northern Rail Trail. To prepare for the prescribed burn, the project took proactive measures to protect the outer perimeter of the harvested area and surrounding reserve patches by creating a debris-free guard by utilizing a machine-tethered system in areas with steep terrain.

Gord Pratt, FESBC Senior Manager said, “FESBC was extremely pleased to provide funding to the RDCK so they could lead the delivery of this project by taking on a role that isn’t common with other Regional Districts across the province. The project was successful due to the collaborative work by all involved and led by the RDCK to ensure meaningful input and involvement in the planning and implementation of the project, which included involving local governments, the Ministry of Forests, the local forest licensee, Kalesnikoff, and local public interest groups. The result was a project that reduced the wildfire risk to people in the Nelson area through diverse forest management activities.”

John Cathro of Cathro Consulting played a major role in the project and applauded the initiative taken by RDCK. “The project would never have happened without the vision and commitment of RDCK staff and elected officials. Everyone involved at the RDCK knew they were doing something innovative, and that success would require taking risks, forming new relationships, and trusting in the process,” said Cathro.

Cathro explained that the project had a few challenges: Building trust and commitment among various stakeholders for a long-term wildfire risk reduction project, limited grant cycles, and shorter attention spans made it difficult to build trust and engage community leaders who could promote the project. Overcoming these obstacles required innovative solutions and a willingness to embrace untested initiatives, and all parties involved showed that in abundance, according to Cathro.

“In the case of climate resilience and community wildfire risk reduction, change is necessary but change does not happen by itself. It takes people to get together and make it happen,” said Cathro, adding, “Given the complexity of the project, FESBC was flexible with changing timelines and modifications to the scope. The project would have stopped after the first year if the funding program was too stringent or unbending.”

Gerald Cordeiro, the Forest Development Manager for Kalesnikoff, also highlighted the collaborative aspects of the project, calling it a success. “One of the main takeaways for me was that the collaboration was a success in terms of advancing our collective knowledge of how to work together on a project in order to achieve the desired results,” said Cordeiro.

According to Cordeiro, the collaboration kicked into high gear when Kalesnikoff, the RDCK, BC Wildfire Service, the City of Nelson, and several notable local experts began investigating and planning for what can now be seen as a mostly-complete fuel treatment on the hillside just south of Nelson. “Throughout the planning process, we kept coming back to the idea that this would be a first-of-its-kind project, and the collaborative aspect was as important as the physical results. We learned to work within a multi-jurisdictional shared decision-making environment that will act as an invaluable model for other future projects. The planning process also included seeking input from other local interest groups, Indigenous communities, and the local community, in addition to engaging with Selkirk College and FP Innovations,” explained Cordeiro.

The project has the prescribed burn left to do this year. Kalesnikoff will also be tree planting and placing pheromone deterrents to keep the bark beetles out of the Douglas Fir trees. “We all want to make sure we take the opportunity to get the message out that collaboration works, and we can now demonstrate significant results to benefit society without an untenable set of compromises,” said Cordeiro.

FESBC would like to gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Province of British Columbia through the Ministry of Forests.