VIDEO: Land recovery one year after Elephant Hill and Gustafsen wildfires

How South Cariboo forests are recovering from 2017 wildfires

Last summer in the South Cariboo was defined by its wildfires.

The Elephant Hill wildfire burned 191,865 hectares of land, the Gustafsen wildfire burned 5,700 hectares and additional fires-of-note burned in the Canim and Hawkins Lake area.

After one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in B.C. history, how is the land recovering?

Pat Byrne is the district manager for the 100 Mile House Natural Resource District of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations & Rural Development.

He has been involved in wildfire suppression, fire management and fuel management for much of his 30-year career.

“There are parts of the area where it’s going to look like a normal forest next year and parts of the area where it’s going to look like a plantation for 15 years.”

The land is already starting to recover and plant communities are re-establishing themselves, according to Byrne, but it will be a long process.

Working on restoration

One of the goals in the regeneration process is returning “ecologically appropriate species” to the land, he said.

Dry-belt Douglas fir doesn’t regenerate well after a wipe-out scenario; and while some areas may still be receptive, he said they may have to plant a mix of species initially to encourage regeneration.

He and his crew are well into the process of prioritizing areas for regeneration, doing an inventory of the fires and surveying the ground so they can order trees and begin planting. He estimated they’ll be working on this for the next four or five years.

Looking at fires differently

For Byrne, last year’s intense wildfire season was “a wake-up call” for how society looks at and treats wildfires.

“Much of the area that was burned by both the Gustafsen and Elephant Hill fires, they burned over fire-dependent ecosystems,” he said. “These ecosystems rely on fires as much as the soil and the air and the water they get. It’s how they evolve.”

The forest relies on a 10 to 15 year fire cycle to thin out the vegetation and create a more open forest, Byrne explained. Removing fire from the landscape resulted in a dense forest and created conditions where fire could burn hotter and more aggressively than a natural setting would have ever allowed.

He said these conditions culminated last summer in a “perfect storm” of sorts.

“You’ve got a fire-dependent ecosystem and you exclude fire from it. What do you expect is going to happen?”

A new approach

The ministry is looking at different approaches to prevent extreme wildfire conditions and reintroduce fire into the landscape, said Byrne, and he and his staff have been exposing themselves to scientist Paul Hessburg’s research on megafires.

Byrne doesn’t yet consider himself an expert on the research, but suggested they would ultimately need to mimic the natural ecological scene to avoid wildfires becoming uncontrollable.

“I’m not suggesting we burn everything down every 10 or 15 years, that’s not the answer, but we have to create the conditions that would mirror that.”

Whether this means more controlled burning or allowing a selection of fires to burn is yet to be established.

This would come with a cost – smoke in the air or smaller timber production, for example.

Byrne said potential solutions would, of course, have to be held in balance with the community’s needs.

100 Mile House is just one of many communities who are already engaging in identifying areas for forest-thinning treatments.

15 Years

average time between fire scarring in the UBC Research Forest South of 150 Mile House, according to a recent study.

1,000+ Trees

planted this year by elementary school students in the South Cariboo

240 to 260 Million Trees

planted annually in B.C. over the past five years

275 Million Trees

expected to be planted in 2020

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An aerial shot taken on Thursday, July 12, 2018, showing the area heading west from Sheridan Lake towards Pressy Lake.

An aerial shot taken on Thursday, July 12, 2018, showing the area west of Pressy Lake. Beth Audet photos.

An aerial shot taken on Thursday, July 12, 2018, showing the area over Green Lake.

The Pressy Lake area as seen on Thursday, July 12. Ursula Hart photo.

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