Fire break work in South Cariboo

‘We’re trying to keep it shaded so it keeps the forest floor a little [moist]’

In the 100 Mile House area, 120,000 hectares of land were damaged as a result of wildfires in 2017 in a fire season that saw over 65,000 people evacuated in the province. The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development is trying to prevent that from happening again.

For the South Cariboo area, this means many kilometres of proposed fire breaks.

“We’ve identified two different types of fire breaks that we do,” says Rob Martin, Land and Resource Planning Specialist for the 100 Mile House Natural Resource District.

The first type, are interface fuel breaks which exist near residential areas.

“These ones are meant to change fire behaviour, basically to prevent, as much as possible, fire from moving into the community and also fire from moving out into the forest because we both know fire goes both ways.”

Looking back at 2017 a lot of fires actually started in residential areas. The two most destructive fires in the South Cariboo in 2017, the Elephant Hill wildfire, at 192,000 hectares, and the Gustafsen Wildfire, at 5,700 hectares, are both believed to be human caused and started relatively close to residential areas. The cause for each is still under investigation.

“We are removing the surface fuels and then we’re removing the laddering fuels because what we don’t want is to get into the crown. So we don’t want a crown fire. We also don’t want it totally clearcut because you do that then all you get is grasses coming up and you get a different type of fire hazard. So we’re trying to keep it shaded so it keeps the forest floor a little [moist] and then there’s less maintenance over time because if you clear cut it you got grasses, you got shrubs and then you have to continually maintain it.”

The interface fuel breaks are typically around 100 metres wide.

The other type of fuel breaks are landscape fuel breaks which are approximately 300 metres wide. They are the same type of thing, however, according to Martin in that they’re supposed to be shaded fuel breaks. They also still try to remove as much of the forest floor fuels as possible.

However, a main difference is that in the interface fire breaks, they’ll also prune branches. Overall that makes it a lot more park-like, according to Martin.

When it comes to the landscape fuel breaks, the intent is for an approaching fire to drop to the ground.

“The ones at the communities and the ones that we’ve got here [landscape breaks] are not designed for the Elephant Hill fire size. You just can’t really do anything there. So this is more for your typical fire.”

Ladder fuels

Ladder fuels are fuels that allow a fire to climb up from the landscape or forest floor into the tree canopy. Common ladder fuels include fallen over trees, shrubs, branches and tall grasses.

“Say you’ve got a small spruce or something, they can tend to wick up pretty quick,” says Martin.

A separate problem is that a lot of the areas haven’t seen any fire, meaning that a lot of the older trees with thick bark, that would be more fire resistant will have a lot of flammable sap on the outside.

“Obviously we want to keep deciduous trees as much as we can. We want to keep the larger trees as much as we can. Trees like pine, we want to take out. Trees like spruce we generally want to take out,” says Martin. “Coniferous trees are like oil based-paint and deciduous trees are like water-based paint.”

Getting started

The identified fuel break areas have been identified through an office process with some local knowledge. While the ministry will put in some of the fuel breaks themselves, in most cases, they’ll approach local companies.

“How would you like to consider putting a cutting permit in this area. Then we would need them to double check, ‘hey does this actually make sense where it is?’”

Considerations for one interface fuel break are currently underway for an area just south of 100 Mile House near the 99 Mile Hill with Steve Capling of DWB Consulting Services Ltd. leading the process in the 100 Mile Woodlot 577.

In that case, three separate routes are being considered, each with their own individual challenges. One proposed route is along the train track. However, the terrain is fairly steep, making it more difficult to access, and due to the train track, it will be a bit more visible. A different route follows a road further up the hill. This route is more likely to interfere with recreational use such as hiking or biking. A third route splits the difference but would require building a new road.

Proposed fuel break routes south of 100 Mile House. Courtesy of Steve Capling, DWB Consulting./p>

Often times the Ministry will work with local mills, such as Norbord or West Fraser, to get the fire breaks in place. However, creating a shaded fuel break carries additional costs, such as removing ground fuels, that local companies don’t normally pay for. This is where a granting agency such as the Forest Enhancement Society of BC (FESBC) comes in. They won’t pay for the whole project but will provide funding for some of the additional costs incurred from doing the fire mitigation work. One of their funding purposes is wildfire risk reduction.

“In 100 Mile here specifically they [FLNRO] have already put together a plan, an integrated investment plan… which identified their priority areas for wildfire risk mitigation. Other parts of the province haven’t done that yet,” says Ray Raatz, operations manager for FESBC.

The projects they’re currently funding include a project right by 100 Mile House in the Community Forest, Canim Lake Band has one and there’s another project around Big Bar Lake.

A number of other projects are currently under consideration and a decision will be made in early March, including proposals near Green Lake, Watch Lake and Sheridan Lake. There’s also work being considered near Lac la Hache.

In total for this intake, they had $63 million available, about $20 million of which was targeted towards wildfire mitigation. When it comes to wildfire risk reduction, there were 86 applications for $62,769,855.

“There’s lots of area to do and there’s only so much funding to go around. So we have a pretty objective process where we go through and we score everything.”

To complete all the areas of priority would take “absolutely years.”

The average cost of doing wildfire risk reduction treatment is probably between $4,000 and $10,000 per hectare, according to Raatz.

“You can imagine that that goes very quickly. There’s a lot more that needs to be done and there’s funding available for it for sure.”

Tree density samples post-wildfire mitigation work. Photos Courtesy of Steve Capling, DWB Consulting.

“One of the model subdivisions”

In the Big Bar Lake area southwest of 100 Mile House, they’ve been working on fire mitigation for years.

In the mid-2000s, they were concerned with beetle kill on the neighbouring ranch and crown land and their own properties.

Steve Silveira owns a summer home in the area and was part of the strata council. As a professional forester, he started working with other agencies to mitigate the fire hazard on behalf of the strata, working with FLNRO, the provincial park next door and the ranchland owner, he says.

They were successful in getting one of the main licensees, which was Ainsworth Lumber at the time, to harvest with permission from the owner of the ranch. One of the people doing the bunching had a small Bobcat buncher and said he could probably bring it into their private lots. They went door to door and made an agreement with some of the property owners. A number of others chose to hire tree experts, he says.

“We got all of our lots pretty much, with a couple of exceptions, but for the most part all of the lots were cleaned up in terms of fire hazard.”

Ainsworth logged the crown land portion to the north and some to the south of the ranch, he says.

“At the end of the day, I think the opinion of the wildfire branch was that we were in pretty good shape, probably better than most.”

Now fuel breaks, according to FLNRO plans, are being put into place. Those are expected to be similar to the fuel breaks in other areas of the local forest area.

That work is being done by First Nations from the Canoe Creek and Dog Creek (Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation) and Zanzibar Holdings Ltd.

What they’re doing is essentially a three-year project, says Bill Layton, a senior forester with Zanzibar.

They’ve started with some spacing and have completed about 32 hectares.

For the first year, they received $200,000 which was for both the Big Bar Lake area and Lac la Hache, where they’re still in the funding application stage. Should they get the funding for that area they’ll do a lot more public consultation.

In the Big Bar area, there’s been quite a bit of discussion about it, he says.

“People are generally positive about it. Negative comments we got were people don’t like having ribbons out there so we have tried to minimize the amount of ribbon we’ve been hanging.”

They’re currently waiting to hear back from the FESBC to see if the remaining years will be funded.

Within the strata, after fielding some questions, there hasn’t been a lot of pushback, according to Silveira. Silveira says he thinks there’s still one property owner outside of the strata but thinks it will ultimately go down fairly well.

“We’re going to be in really, really, really good shape. I would think we’ll probably be one of the model subdivisions in terms of really having pretty well fireproofed the entire area.”

Moving forward

For other areas, such as near the 99 Mile Hill, it’s still going to take some time before work gets started.

“It’s unlikely that any harvesting would go on before the next fire season,” said Capling at a public meeting around the start of February. “The chance of us getting harvesting in here this year before the fire season is pretty much zero. We do this exercise, we collect some comments, we do some more analysis and then when we pick an option it has a minimum 60 day referral and that goes out and then if there’s any artwork that needs to happen that takes another x amount of time and then it’s another 30 to 60 days for a cutting permit.”

Even when the cutting is complete, it’s not the end. When doing the fire mitigation work, it leaves a lot of stressed trees, according to Capling.

“Because of the amount of fir bark beetle that’s around because of fires and climate and stuff… we’re going to lose trees every year to fir bark beetle. So part of the deal is going to be, when you do the cut prescription you sorta say this is what we’re aiming for and then you back off by 10-20-30 per cent, sort of strategically so that you can afford to take fir bark beetle out over the next five to ten years.

“It’s tricky business.”

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