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Globe & Mail August 5, 2009

As fires continue to rage across southern British Columbia (2009) home-owners and taxpayers wonder if there’s a plan for contending with tinder dry, beetle infested forests.

There are hundreds of thousands of homes across the southern half of the province that straddle the urban wildland interface – from picturesque Lake Okanagan to the densely populated North Shore of the Lower Mainland to the town of Whistler and the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

As climate models have predicted a warming world with smaller snowpack’s, earlier spring melts and longer, hotter and drier fire seasons along with the 65 glaciers in the province that are retreating and the largest native mountain pine beetle infestation in modern times are the telltales for the perfect storm of the mismanaged bone-dry forests of British Columbia.

Residents of BC are rightfully furious that the lessons of the hellacious 2003 fire season appear to have been completely disregarded. A meager amount of clearing around the outskirts of Kelowna did not reduced the fuel loads as witnessed two weeks ago resulting in the loss of homes, looting and the evacuation of thousands of home-owners. And now the town of Lillooet is evacuated.

For the past 95 years or so the BC Forest Service has imposed a Smokey Bear fire policy, interrupting the natural fire cycle and deliberately preventing wildfires. All forests in BC and throughout the nation have evolved with fire; many tree species rely upon it for their survival.

The beleaguered forest industry has for the past 90 years dismantled most of BCs 50 million hectares of working forests and with slumping world economies it has dislocated tens of thousands of worker, shut its doors and is not able to help foot the bill of more than $110 million of firefighting costs to BC residents – the very people who owned the crown land which the forest industry so handsomely profited from.

Forest ecosystems, like humans, continuously undergo change. Fire is one of Nature’s agents of change. By purposely stopping fire from occurring, the BC Forest Service have altered the structure and composition of the forests.

In southern British Columbia, hundreds of millions of over mature and tinder dry lodgepole pine are in some cases surrounding communities i.e. Kelowna and Lillooet. Lightning-induced fire every 35 years or so would normally preclude such conditions now being faced, but outdated management policies have clearly upset Nature’s balance.

In addition, droughts across BC have weakened billions of mature pine trees. Those pines that have not died from water starvation lack gooey pitch – their only defense mechanism against native bark beetles. The trees are sitting ducks and insatiable bark beetles sense this vulnerability.

Bark beetles are another of Nature’s agents of change; they are on a tear. Since fire has been suppressed from the landscape, and lethal frigid temperatures in November have not occurred for the last decade and a half — billions of bark beetles are swarming in a feeding frenzy of biblical proportions.

Hundreds of millions of dead standing pines in BC are acting as kindling and fueling megafires like those of 2003.

Unusual times call for unusual actions and Premier Clark would be well advised to consider following a precedent that former Governor Richardson (of New Mexico and fellow member of the Western Climate Initiative) implemented successfully to remove millions of dead pinyon pines in New Mexico and protect home-owners. Richardson mobilized prison inmates to clear the incendiary dead trees from forestlands.

The costs of having inmates assist in removal of dead trees as well as thinning-out over-crowded forests in southern BC around communities is a fraction of the cost of the other options, including raising new taxes and the labor cost for having foresters thin the forest, hundreds of millions of dollars spent fighting wildfires, or the cost of replacing homes destroyed by fires, and human lives senselessly lost.

The choice for removing the explosive forest kindling is clear: would you rather your tax dollars be spent paying $1 per hour to inmates or $30 per hour to professional fallers?

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Earth Dr Reese Halter is an award-winning Science Communicator: Voice for Ecology and distinguished conservation biologist. His latest books are The Insatiable Bark Beetle and The Incomparable Honeybee

Contact Earth Dr Reese Halter

Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2012. All rights reserved.


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