Like most jurisdictions across North America, British Columbia’s response to forest fires or wildfires has traditionally been one of suppression. In fact, the agency responsible for wildfire policies in B.C. is called the Protection Branch of the Ministry of Forests and Range.
However, in the wake of the devastating wild fires of 2003, fire policies have undergone considerable review. A report by former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon identified the buildup of forest fuels through years of fire suppression and the growing urban-forest interface as two of the keys in revamping wildfire policies.
At the Ministry of Forests and Range, the thinking regarding fire and forests has evolved and, in some instances, the ministry now employs prescribed fire “to accomplish planned resource management objectives.” On the ministry’s website, under the heading “Prescribed fire”, it states: “When the B.C. Forest Service was established in 1912, it emphasized the prevention and control of forest fires in the province. The success of aggressive fire suppression has resulted in a dangerous build-up of forest fuels, tree encroachment on grasslands, and in-filling of the once open, dry forests of the southern interior. More recently, forest, range, and wildlife managers have been using fire as a land management tool. Prescribed fire can help grow better forests, create better habitat for wildlife and domestic animals, reduce the intensity of naturally occurring wildfires, and return an integral process to some ecosystems.
“Fire is a natural, normal process in many ecosystems. It is beneficial and necessary to maintain a healthy forest and the diversity of plant and animal life. Through evolution and exposure to wildfires, many plants and animals have adapted to fire, and in fact actually depend on it.”
In January 2006 Peter Fuglem, B.C. Forest Service Protection Program director, presented a new Protection Program Strategy.
“The strategy is intended to lead to two signif i cant outcomes: further increased effectiveness of the Protection Program; and enhancement of Wildfire Management in the Province of British Columbia. As it becomes fully implemented, the strategy will benefit the Province with increased security from unwanted wildfire and improved management of forest and range resources in consideration of the ecological role of fire,” Fuglem wrote as an introduction to the strategy.
Scientific evidence suggests that prior to organized efforts to suppress wildfires about 500,000 hectares of forest in B.C. burned annually. In recent years the annual average of forest burned is less than 50,000 hectares.
Fuglem’s report states: “Historically, burns on the landscape served as fuel breaks to slow large fire spread, and First Nations have used fire to manage the land. It is generally recognized that fire exclusion can contribute to increased wildfire threat from fuel accumulation. Today, wildfire management recognizes the benefits of fire as a natural mechanism for fuel reduction — thus helping to protect ecosystems, people and assets.”
But the mandate of the Forest Service’s Protection Program remains: “Provide wildfire management and emergency response support to protect life and assets, particularly forest and grass lands, as provided for under government plans and cost-sharing agreements.”
A shift from fire control to wildfire management “goes beyond the current mandate of the Protection Program. It relies on a better understanding of the role of wildfire by the public and stakeholders who are increasingly involved in resource management consultation but typically consider government as exclusively responsible for protection from fire.”