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How a B.C. airport and First Nation are fighting fire with fire

Over the past two weeks, the ʔaq̓am First Nation has worked with its neighbours to singe forestlands triple the size of Vancouver's Stanley Park. The idea: protect communities and bring life back to the forest.

On Sept. 1, 2017, a wildfire erupted on the edge of the St. Mary's River. Within hours, the fire raged into a 250-hectare blaze that threatened the nearly 300 members of the ʔaq̓am First Nation.

On the ground, three dozen firefighters and six pieces of heavy equipment built fire guards to protect the nearby community and airport. Several helicopters and airplanes dropped water from the sky. 

“It was just wild,” said Michelle Shortridge, operations manager at ʔaq̓am. “In the span of like 30 minutes, it was out of control.”

“We had to evacuate over half of our community.”

Ten days later, firefighters got the blaze under control and the evacuation order was lifted, but not before it burned through three homesteads on the edge of the community. A year later, the Meachen Creek fire raged “out of control,” once again putting the whole community on evacuation alert. Shortridge says it's part of a visible decade-long pattern during which extreme wildfire behaviour has increasingly threatened their community. 

“That fire was extremely terrifying for people,” she said.

B.C.’s 2017 and 2018 fire seasons would go down as the worst two on record in terms of area burned. With the fires, came smoke: in 2018, emissions spiked more than 1,200 times the 25-year annual average ending in 2015, according to government data.

It's all part of a wider pattern playing out across the country. According to an analysis from researchers at the Canadian Forest Service, the number of big fires in Canada have doubled between 1959 and 2015.

“There is some indication that the increase in these very large wildfires may be one of the most important factors driving trends in fire regimes,” concluded lead author and Canadian Forest Service scientist Chelene Hanes in the study.

Hanes and her colleagues found the annual area burned across most of Western Canada, northern Ontario and Quebec, is trending upward, while the fire season is starting a week earlier and ending a week later. 

Lori Daniels, a forest ecologist and professor at the University of British Columbia, is among a number of experts who say it’s part of a long-term trajectory of increasingly bigger and hotter fire seasons — what a United Nations report describes as a “global wildfire crisis” made worse by climate change.

As climate change raises the chances of devastating wildfires, one proposed solution has been to disrupt the pattern of logging that leaves so much dead wood behind. In recent years, Indigenous experts and the communities they come from have increasingly called for a return to traditional prescribed burns, also known as cultural burning or cool fires. 

The practice was common place in many of B.C.’s forests until the late 1800s, when it was subjugated alongside other Indigenous practices, according to research carried out by Daniels and her colleagues. In its place, government agencies focused on extinguishing fire at any cost, making the dead and woody debris problem worse, she says.

Earlier this month, in a small corner of B.C.’s East Kootenay region, those old practices saw a resurgence, albeit with a modern twist.

The burn

The burn started in late April on a 79-hectare swath of land next to the Canadian Rockies International Airport. The airport, a home base for air tankers, is considered a critical asset to fight active wildfires, and one that played a key role in defending the ʔaq̓am lands in 2017. 

Next came 1,240 hectares of reserve forestland, an area equivalent to more than three Stanley Parks.

“This parcel [of land] hasn't seen wildfire for over 50 years, so just lots of fuel if there was a wildfire to burn through there,” Shortridge said. “That would just probably be catastrophic to both the City of Cranbrook as well as us as ʔaq̓am.”

An Elder from the community led a prayer and talked about their history using fire as a tool on the land. Then one of the community members, a retired forest firefighter, ignited the first fire.

“I had so many people come up to me on site and just say thank you for sharing that traditional knowledge,” said Shortridge, referring to the Elder's teachings. “They really appreciated that and it gives them just a better understanding of who we are as people and the stewardship principles we have for taking care of our land.”

The burn brought together 75 people — including members of the ʔaq̓am First Nation, staff from the nearby municipalities of Cranbrook and Kimberley, the BC Wildfire Service and a number of contractors.

On the ground, crews carrying handheld drip torches traced flaming lines of diesel and gasoline, what fire ecologist Robert Gray describes as “a catcher’s mitt” to contain the burn zone.

From the air, helicopters fired flaming ping pong ball-sized incendiary devices. The potassium permanganate-filled balls are injected with ethylene glycol before being launched into the canopy. When they land on the forest floor, the chemical mix sparks an exothermic reaction for about 30 seconds before they burn out.

“You fly along and this machine just drops out these balls,” Gray said, who has worked with the community for several years.

Like all prescribed burns, the multi-day operation was carefully timed so the ground is still moist and weather is not too hot or windy. The resulting low-intensity “cool fires” gut the dead wood that might otherwise burn out of control in an unplanned summer fire.

By eliminating woody debris, the controlled burn is meant to protect the airport's critical infrastructure, a major power line, and the ʔaq̓am First Nation living at Kootenay IR No. 1. The fire is also expected to rejuvenate the forest habitat for elk, deer, flammulated owl, Lewis’s woodpecker, and the little brown bat.

In some places, that meant burning around meadows or previously burned areas, and always having tankers and crews on standby.

Forestland after planned cultural burning singed off old woody debris. Robert Gray

Last week, mop-up crews finished scouring the forest floor, extinguishing any smouldering fires. Life is already returning to the once-overcrowded forest, said Shortridge.

“Two weeks out now and we're already starting to see green growth back there and everything looks healthy,” Shortridge said. “It's not just burned to a crisp.”

Gray says the planning and execution of a prescribed burn often works out to about $500 per hectare. In the summer season, if a fire were to consume that same hectare of forest, the cost to fight it could be two to four times higher, he said.

Of course, every fire is different. The 2017 fire that threatened the ʔaq̓am community cost them $1.5 million to put out. The prescribed burning, which took five years of planning and was more than triple the size, cost roughly the same amount.

“We're definitely spending less money when we're doing prescribed burning versus if we're trying to fight wildfires,” said Shortridge.

Outside of physically protecting a community, Shortridge said prescribed fire also helps avoid the emotional cost and trauma that comes with the approach of an out-of-control wildfire. 

Then there's the carbon problem: by one estimate, wildfires belch out up to 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. A large chunk of those emissions come from Canada, and in particular, B.C.

Some studies have shown prescribed fire could help lock carbon into forest soils and reduce overall emissions from forest fires.

A 2021 study looking at the emission reduction potential of prescribed burning in five Mediterranean countries found the practice could reduce emissions equivalent to 70 per cent of the greenhouse gases released by Portugal’s transportation sector.

And on the savanna lands of northern Australia, others have found the application of prescribed fire has cut wildfire emissions in those areas by at least a third.

How cultural burning might reduce emissions in B.C. forests — which are already some of the most carbon-dense in the world — is not clear, and experts say more work needs to be done. 

‘A drop in the bucket’

Back in the East Kootenay region, videos of the fire treatment show towering flames roaring through the crowns of some trees. In other photos, the fire can be seen creeping along the ground. All of this, said Gray, was by design, with the more intense fires meant to thin out the forest.

“They were aiming to kill about 20 per cent because of how overgrown it was in there and just the amount of fuel on the ground,” said Shortridge.

Combined with other prescribed burns in the area over recent years, Gray says the treatments are finally getting to a scale that will make a difference.

Elsewhere in the province, however, there are many communities queuing years before they can get a burn permit.

In 2020, there were 12 prescribed burns across B.C., a spokesperson for the BC Wildfire Service said. In 2021, that climbed to 33, and in 2022, the number of completed prescribed burns hovered at 35. This year, the service expects the number of planned burns to hit 30, before climbing to 40 in 2024 and 2025.

“Everyone is certainly keen,” Gray said. “But it's a drop in the bucket.”

A lot of the problem comes down to having the right people with the right training, what Gray describes as “a capacity problem.”

“Everyone wants to get going, but you don't have the burn plans written. We don't have some of the key staff in place yet,” he said.

“The province is starting to train more of their people, but there's a backlog.”

Video edited by Alanna Kelly