Summer wild fires and smoke-clogged skies the new normal in B.C.

Air quality advisory extends into third day with no end in sight

Don’t bank on that run around the Seawall, trek up the Grouse Grind or crosstown bike ride to East Side breweries any time soon.

The wildfire haze blanketing southern B.C. isn’t going anywhere for at least two weeks, if not longer.

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Environment Canada meteorologist Matt MacDonald told the Courier Wednesday morning that a substantive spell of wet and windy weather is needed to even make a dent in the horrific air quality plaguing huge swaths of land from California to Alaska.  

Working off weather predicting models that forecast in two-week intervals, MacDonald sees no reprieve before the end of August.

“There is no considerable precipitation on the radar for as long as the eye can see,” he said.

Metro Vancouver’s most recent air quality advisory extended into its third straight day Wednesday, the same day the province declared a state of emergency. More than 560 fires are burning across B.C.

Unlike last year’s fire season — the worst on record — where blazes were mostly in the Cariboo and Okanagan, this year is markedly different. This year’s fires are everywhere, and have so far ripped through close to 400,000 hectares of land. It’s already the fourth worst fire season on record.

Measured on a sliding scale of one to 10, the air quality health index hovered between five and seven across Metro Vancouver on Wednesday. That reading translates to a moderate health risk.

By comparison, the same index reading in parts of the Cariboo was 10-plus.

“You can’t see across the street in Quesnel right now,” MacDonald said.

The winds did Vancouver no favours earlier this week, blowing in wildfire smoke from both Vancouver Island — where 30 fires are burning on the northern tip alone — and the Interior.

Some help is coming over the next three days, as westerly winds from the Pacific Ocean will spread across Vancouver Thursday through Monday. The worst air quality is seen between 11 p.m. and sunrise, as pollutants accumulate at ground level.

“The real challenge with this is that no matter where the winds shift to, there are wildfires pretty much in every direction,” MacDonald said. “A shift in the wind direction is not really going to help us that much. What we need is a sizeable rainmaker that would come and douse some of these fires.”

Precursors to today’s fires seen decades ago

So how did we get here? Why has there been three fire-related provincial states of emergency since 2003? How is it that virtually every summer moving forward will feature weeks of prolonged haze and countless fires?

According to UBC professor Lori Daniels, the reasons are many and complex.

Climate change is the easy and obvious answer, but far from the only one. A professor of forest and conservation sciences, Daniels says precursors to today’s fires were seen decades ago.

The mountain pine beetle epidemic that started in the 1990s was a substantial sign of things to come. For starters, it killed millions of hectares of trees and created an abundance of fire fuel across B.C. that was never properly disposed of on a large scale. 

The beetle’s proliferation also highlighted how certain trees — lodge pole pine, for example — were planted above others, namely for economic reasons. Those decisions created uniform forest types, which in turn, created untold amounts of fuel and a weakened resiliency to fires.

Tree species like aspen or paper birch weren’t planted with the same frequency as Douglas fir, cedar or other types of wood coveted by industry. In some instances, aspen and paper birch stands were killed off or overharvested. Referred to as broadleaf trees, those species are critical to large stands of trees: they’re less prone to burning, create shade on the forest floor, reduce temperatures and promote more humidity.

The ideal scenario, according to Daniels, is a forest full of mixed species and mixed densities of those species. That diversity allows for more fire resilience, more nutrients in the ecosystem and less fuel.

“If we’re just going to plant primarily lodge pole pine over large areas in our Interior forests of B.C., we’re setting ourselves up so that the next generation, our kids and grandkids, will be fighting off the next mountain pine beetle epidemic and all those forest fires,” Daniels said. “We have to learn from those mistakes and do better.”

Benefits of burn offs

Another mitigating factor is the nature of how we fight fires — in short, we’ve gotten too good at it.

Daniels said some remote fires should be left to burn off, albeit in a controlled manner, so new ecosystems can start from scratch. That practice has already begun in parts of B.C.

“It seems kind of wasteful in the short term because you create all this smoke and you burn all this timber,” she said. “But it creates diversity in the landscape. If you let a fire burn, it rejuvenates a new forest.”

Another remedy is the immediate need for fuel mitigation around B.C.’s cities and towns. Daniels pointed to a 2004 study that suggested 1.6 million hectares of forested areas around B.C. are on the cusp of urban areas and chock full of fuel. Those forests need to be thinned out, and the fuel on the ground removed before any sort of predetermined, controlled burn can happen to finish the job.

That process also includes an unpopular notion, at least politically — cutting a bunch of trees down.

Where older, thicker trees are more fire resilient, younger trees often act like wicks that pick up flames from the forest floor and transport the blaze up in to the tree canopy.

“We need a substantive investment, in the order of billions of dollars, in order to treat those fuels, to create safeguard zones around those communities,” she said.

‘The tipping point is happening’

Those costs will rise exponentially under the status quo approach. Estimates for a full recovery — including rebuilt infrastructure, human health costs and job loss — from the 2016 Fort McMurray fires are in the range of $10 billion.

Firefighting costs alone from last year’s wildfire season in B.C. have been pegged at $570 million. Daniels said that number can jump anywhere from two to 30 times higher once other factors like rebuilt infrastructure and human health costs and are tallied.

Places such as California and parts of Australia that were once seasonal fire worries are now year-round concerns. Fire season in those locales is every day, every year.

Daniels doesn’t foresee that happening in B.C., largely because we’re too far north.

But a summer without haze is a different story altogether.

“I think we’ve crossed a threshold. The tipping point is happening,” she said. “Even in the past we’ve had variations from one year to the next. But I think what we’ve seen in the last 15 years is more of these years with fairly big fires with greater impacts. I think that part of it is here to stay.”



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