Climate Change

Fire suppression efforts over the last century have resulted in unintended consequences. By stopping fire from naturally occurring, forests and other landscapes have become drier and overgrown. We are also experiencing extreme weather events like heatwaves, droughts, thunder, and lightning. Add in a warming climate and these are the perfect conditions for even greater wildfires, exposing our ecosystems, communities, and wildlife to risk.
To adapt, we need to better understand our evolving climate and the potential effects that it will have on the landscape and ecosystems. With this improved understanding, we can work together to create proactive plans that look for opportunities and prepare for expected future changes.
Wildfire in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park, B.C. Canada
A sea otter – a species of special concern in B.C.
A humpback whale, endangered
Devastated farmland in Abbotsford after flooding.
A fire on the landscape
A helicopter fighting wildfire near Port Alice, B.C.
A volunteer operates a boat while rescuing people stranded due to floodwaters in Abbotsford, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS – Darryl Dyck
A prescribed fire in a B.C. forest.
Grizzly bears are listed as species of “Special Concern”.
Debris from fire in Lytton, B.C.
Many populations salmon are listed as endangered.
Damage to railroad tracks after flooding in Abbotsford.

How climate is changing landscapes

Forests

B.C.’s forests cover almost 2/3 of the province (over 55 million hectares) and contain more ecosystem diversity than any other province in Canada.

B.C. is home to over 4000 plant and animal species, of which, 1/3 rely on forests for some portion of their life cycle. Additionally, B.C.’s forests provide numerous other benefits, including providing clean water and air, recreation, wildlife habitat, timber, carbon storage, climate regulation, and economic values through rangeland and forage, recreation and forest products. Climate change is already changing forest health and productivity, and this is expected to continue over the next decade. Anticipated changes to forests from climate change:

  • More severe and frequent forest fires
  • Extreme weather events (e.g. prolonged drought and/or heat) will cause some tree species to become stressed and maladapted to their current habitats, causing difficulties in both natural and assisted regeneration
  • Ecosystems are likely to migrate to higher elevations or latitudes
  • Assisted migration as a silviculture practice may help to mitigate the adaption of trees into changing environments
  • Changes in forest structure may result in ecosystem shifting, which could lead domination by shrubs and herbaceous vegetation
  • Forest pests and pathogens will increase, resulting in more tree mortality, fuel buildup, making forest more susceptible to wildfire
  • Changes in climate will result in changes to ecosystems, species distributions and density

B.C.’s forests cover almost

2/3

of the province

Forest Disturbances

Climate change will increase the frequency and/or severity of forest disturbances, such as insect outbreaks, the establishment of invasive species, wildfires, and storms or high wind events causing tree blow down. This can reduce forest productivity and force some species to migrate to higher elevations and latitudes where temperatures are more conducive to their survival.

Group 42

Wildfire escalation

A history of aggressive and highly effective wildfire suppression in B.C. has resulted in a significant build-up of forest fuels, greater tree encroachment on grasslands, and ‘in-filling’ of once open, dry forests. We are also experiencing extreme weather events, such as drought, hotter and drier conditions, and increased thunderstorms and lightning.

This combination is resulting in larger, more frequent wildfires, negatively impacting biodiversity, forest health, and threatening nearby communities.

Human impacts

Flooding

A flood is an overflow of water onto land that is normally dry. Floods are caused by several factors, including weather-driven events and human-related factors, such as how we manage waterways (via dams, levees, and reservoirs) and the changes we make to the landscape. Past land management mistakes, such as fire suppression, have unintentionally contributed to an increase in large-scale wildfires, which can dramatically alter the terrain and ground conditions. Normally, vegetation absorbs rainfall, reducing runoff. However, wildfires leave the ground charred, barren, and unable to absorb water, creating conditions ideal for flash flooding and mudflow.

Water Contamination & Quality

Higher temperatures can increase photosynthesis in aquatic ecosystems and cause algae blooms that can be harmful to humans and animals. When wildfires burn with high-intensity, as they are predicted to in future climate scenarios, they remove most of the vegetation that functions to trap sediments, filter nutrients, and reduce the effects of water erosion. When this vegetation is consumed, erosion and debris flows become more likely. Increased sediments and nutrients have negative impacts on water quality and increase treatment costs for human consumption.

Health, Infrastructure & Economy

Extreme weather events can negatively impact our physical and mental health, our infrastructure and the economy. For example, wildfires, floods and landslides can damage homes, properties, highways and bridges – sometimes resulting in temporary relocation and a subsequent recovery period. This can also impact transportation, access to critical services, and businesses. Health impacts from these events can include stress and anxiety or respiratory disease due to smoke. The good news is that we can learn from our past mistakes (ie: fire suppression, forest management) and implement positive changes that create more resilient landscapes and healthy, more adaptive communities.

How can cultural burning and prescribed fire help respond to climate change?

Planned fire vs. wildfire

A wildfire, also called a forest fire, bushfire, wildland fire or rural fire is an unplanned, uncontrolled and unpredictable fire in an area of combustible vegetation starting in rural and urban areas. Wildfires are often caused by human activity or a natural phenomenon such as lightning, and they can happen at any time and almost anywhere.

A prescribed fire or cultural burn, is the planned and controlled application of fire to the landscape. It is used as a tool to achieve specific objectives, such as preserving cultural values for Indigenous communities or maintaining the health and safety of forests, communities, and wildlife. Fire intensity and severity can be better controlled through cultural burning or prescribed fire, increasing the ecosystem benefits and mitigating the damaging effects of wildfires.

Enhancing landscape ecosystem resiliency

Ecosystem resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to absorb disturbance while maintaining essentially the same functions, structures, and controls. This concept helps us understand how ecosystems change in response to local or regional disturbances, as well as to factors like climate change.

    Ecosystem resilience can be enhanced through adaptive forest management activities designed to maintain ecological functions and support resistance to disturbance.

      One activity that can help ecosystems build resilience to future disturbances is introducing controlled fire into forests where past fire suppression has disrupted historical fire cycles.





Introducing fire into ecosystems where

historical fire cycles

have been disrupted is an adaptive forest management tactic that could promote ecosystem resilience.



Wildfire risk reduction

Wildfire risk reduction refers to proactive activities that are implemented to reduce the threat of wildfire to forests and communities. These activities are typically initiated around critical infrastructure and in areas facing a higher wildfire risk.

Depending on the goals, values, and size of the area, this may include prescribed or cultural burning, thinning, pruning, chipping, and mechanically removing fuels to reduce the amount of burnable vegetation.

Targeted grazing by livestock following treatment may be used in some cases to reduce the fine fuels on a site. This helps to reduce wildfire intensity and provides safer conditions for firefighting efforts.

Up to $50 million committed

In 2022, as part of a more comprehensive wildfire risk reduction effort, the Province committed up to $50 million over three years for wildfire risk reduction efforts on crown land. The Crown Land Wildfire Risk Reduction funding category targets areas of Crown land facing a higher wildfire risk near communities or critical infrastructure.
Prescribed fire and cultural burning are one type of wildfire reduction tool that can be effective in bringing back balance to our forests and reducing the risks of wildfire to our communities.

How do we adapt to this new normal?

To be able to adapt to a world with more wildfire and other landscape changes related to climate change, we need to be more proactive.

Strategically planning wildfire mitigation tactics, such as cultural burning and prescribed fire, will assist in reducing fuel build-up, maintaining forest health and creating a more resilient landscape.

We need to work together to address climate change and prepare for the threat of extreme weather events, like wildfire. Through collaboration, we can explore opportunities to improve forest and community resiliency so that we can all continue to enjoy and benefit from public and private lands and the important values that they provide.

Case Studies

Owl Creek Cultural Burn

Filmed in July 2022, the Owl Creek Cultural Burn was implemented by Lil’wat Nation with support from BC Wildfire Service in Mount Currie on Lil’wat Nation Traditional Territory just outside of Pemberton, BC.

See Case Study

River Valley Prescribed Fire Case Study

Nation Traditional Territory outside of Pemberton, BC with the objective of protecting the community. The case study provides an overview of the three phases of a prescribed fire lifecycle and shows the value of partner collaboration when implementing a project of this scale.

See Case Study

Ponderosa Prescribed Burn

This case study details the prescribed fire conducted by BC Wildfire Service in partnership with the Slocan Integral Forestry Cooperative (SIFCo) on April 14, 2021 in the Slocan Valley, BC. The purpose of the project was to create landscape level fuel breaks to reduce the threat of landscape level wildfires in the slocan valley.

See Case Study

Cultural Burning – Shackan Indian Band

Produced in 2019 for First Nations’ Emergency Services Society (FNESS). The Indigenous cultural burning storytelling and practices project is a companion initiative to the Revitalizing traditional burning: Integrating Indigenous cultural values into wildfire management and climate change adaptation planning project.

See Case Study