“Armenius Breitsprecher gazed into the fire and said nothing. Not for the first time he saw that the acquisitive hunger of Duke & Sons was so great they intended to clear the continent. And he was helping them. He hated the [lumber companies] clear-cut despoliation, the insane wastage of sound valuable wood, the destruction of soil, the gullying and erosion, the ruin of the forest world with no thought for the future—the choppers considered the supply to be endless—there was always another forest.”—Armenius Breitsprecher, 1830s; in “Barkskins” by Annie Proulx
As human-caused climate change has warmed the world over the past 35 years, the land consumed by flames has more than doubled. Climate change is contributing to more extreme wildfires, says fire scientist Mike Flannigan of the University of Alberta. “Hotter weather is turbocharging wildfires in western United States,” writes Jane Gerster of The Globe and Mail.
Gerster is referring to tornadoes of fire (firenadoes) frightening flaming vortices of destruction previously only dreamed up in a science fiction horror but now spreading across California. These wildfires even create their own weather, such as the ‘firenado’ that spun up to 143 mph winds during the recent Carr Fire. BC recently suffered pyro-CBs—thunderstorms generated by wildfires.
Low humidity is “the key driver of wildfire spread,” says University of Colorado fire scientist Jennifer Balch who predicts that the Western U.S. will soon see wildfires of 1 million acres (1,562 square miles).
The same can be expected in western Canada.
In a Globe and Mail article entitled “As wildfires rage, is it time to rethink how we manage forests?” Verena Griess, professor in forest management at the University of British Columbia, lists the following causes for the increased frequency, extent and intensity of wildfires in Canada: climate change (with associated increased temperatures and droughts and lightning), the mountain pine beetle (also indirectly a function of climate change and forest disturbance by logging industry causing decreased tree resilience), decreasing space between human development and wildlands, and forest management practices (such as clearcutting, roadbuilding, and lack of diligent replanting for ecosystem resilience). Griess suggests rethinking the process: “We need a paradigm shift in general in how our forests are managed.”
But how do we shift the age-old paradigm of short-sighted capitalism and greed?
“Climate change … has exacerbated problems caused by unsustainable logging in the past,” says William Nikolakis, lecturer in the University of British Columbia’s forestry department. Because of this, “the forests aren’t as resilient as they would be if they were undisturbed.”
It would help if Canada embraced techniques like the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project in Australia, says William Nikolakis. Nikolakis, who is also executive director of Gathering Voices, an organization that aims to bring Indigenous knowledge to a wider audience. In Australia, the abatement project works to help protect the forest before fire breaks out. Indigenous fire managers in the fire-prone region go in early in the season to strategically burn areas that are likely to light up.
In an interview with Globe and Mail reporter Jane Gerster, David Martell, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s faculty of forestry, points to forest companies: “When you’re talking about timber harvest planning,” Martell says, “a company’s trying to figure out, ‘What’s the cheapest way I can get the most amount of wood to my mill while abiding by environmental guidelines?’” The companies are not thinking, “How can I get my wood but also reduce the flammability of the landscape?”
“God’s sake, how on earth does he ‘manage’ a forest?” snorted Edward. “Cut ‘em down! That’s forest managing.”—Annie Proulx, “Barkskins“
Journalist and author of “Firestorm” Ed Struzik exhorts the government and forest industry to invest in the science of fire. But the ‘science of fire’ remains a utilitarian-focused look at the whole phenomenon. We need something that embraces and understands the depth of the phenomenon:
What is needed is a better science of forests: how the forest behaves with fire, why they burn and how they burn; then how forests regenerate, evolve and co-evolve. We need a better understanding of forest ecology and timelines that make sense for the longevity of the forest—not just our quick and greedy pocketbooks.
Many forest ecologists are already telling us about the behaviour of the forest and how forests need to be managed for their longevity; governments and forest companies just need to listen and act.
Even now, as the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources prepares salvage logging permits to forestry companies to take out burnt lumber, UBC forestry professor David Andison argues why they should leave them be: “Unfortunately it happens at a very delicate time in the stage of the development of the ecosystem. Immediately after a fire you’ve got sort of an opportunity for Mother Nature to reset the clock,” Andison said.“There’s a whole community of vegetation that comes up before the forest actually takes hold. And it’s this community that sort of sets the stage for the next 10, 30, 50 years. And to interrupt that delicate phase with equipment, and skidding trees across it can compromise that process.”
While post-fire harvest logging provides short-term gains, it creates long-term ecological impacts that will be felt for many years in the future. The forest’s natural process of renewal has evolved over millions of years, argues Andison. The natural process is slower than clearing and replanting; but Andison argues it will produce a result better adapted both to future fires, and threats like the pine beetle and climate change.
Forest companies—and the government forest ministries along with them—have for decades pursued a strictly cultivate-harvest mentality—with little regard for or understanding of ecological functionality—and resilience—of the forest–despite knowledge shared with them by forest ecologists in academia. Forest companies from pioneer days to the present, have treated the forest as “renewable stands of timber” without recognizing that a forest is a community of various living and non-living things that grow, die and regenerate—as a community.
Living things don’t just “renew” automatically. A “renewable resource” must be understood in its functional context.
This is something forest companies appear not to understand or care about. The apparent view is that a renewable resource—such as trees—will just grow back. This simply isn’t so. Once disturbed, trees—and their supportive community—won’t simply grow back; nor will they be as resilient to disease and fire. This is exactly what is happening now in Canada’s boreal and sub-boreal forests. And, while climate change has certainly exacerbated the situation, it is due to our mismanagement.
“Forests aren’t simply collections of trees,” argues Suzanne Simard, forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia. “They are complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees to allow them to communicate, and provide avenues for feedback and adaptation. This makes the forest resilient through many hub trees and overlapping networks.”
Simard and others demonstrated that hub or mother trees act as nodes to nurture hundreds of their young saplings and send their excess carbon through the mycorrhizal network to the understory seedlings.
But the forest is becoming more than vulnerable.
In 2014, the World Resources Institute reported that Canada in the past decade has had the highest forest disturbance rate of any country worldwide. Not Brazil! “It’s 3.6 percent per year—four times the rate that is sustainable,” says Simard in her a recent TED talk. She warns that massive disturbance at this scale can affect hydrological cycles, degrade wildlife habitat, and emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—creating more disturbance and more tree diebacks.
Alluding to current short-sighted forestry management, Simard warns that the planting of one or two commercial species at the expense of the aspens and birches decreases needed complexity in the forest; such practice makes the forest vulnerable to infections and bugs. And wildfires. As climate warms, “this is creating a perfect storm,” says Simard. The massive mountain pine beetle outbreak that swept across North America and the wildfires currently devastating Alberta and British Columbia are good examples of the consequence of human disturbance (e.g., myopic harvest-based management).
When will we learn? Greed is lonely and money burns. Our children deserve a good world, where they can breathe fresh air, drink clean water, and live healthy lives.
The Mennonites have it right: living with less is living with more.
“They accept [soil erosion] as the natural order of the world. And although they choke in the fumes of the city they do not make a connection with the purer air in the forest. ‘Why is the air clean and fresh near the forest but not in the city?’ one can ask. The answer is ‘Because God made it thus.’ So extensive are the forests here that Americans cannot see an end to them. Therefore, they have no interest in preserving them.”—Armenius Breitsprecher, 1830s; in “Barkskins” by Annie Proulx
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.