British Columbia

A $1.1M project is just the first step in protecting a B.C. historic site from wildfire

The folks who manage Barkerville had just finished their plan for easing the risk of wildfire around the historic B.C. ghost town when the summer of 2017 began.

Barkerville is in the middle of fire mitigation efforts after a close call in 2017

The historic gold rush town of Barkerville was threatened by wildfire in 2017. (Chris Sharpe)

The folks who manage Barkerville had just finished drafting their plan for easing the risk of wildfire around the historic B.C. ghost town when the summer of 2017 began.

Suddenly, it was painfully clear how necessary the plan was. That season, fires came within 12 kilometres of the heritage park.

"[It was] quite frightening, especially when you see the speed these fires travel at," Barkerville CEO Ed Coleman told CBC.

"The one I was observing with the assistance of a helicopter was travelling 4.5 kilometres a day toward us."

Nearly two years later, Barkerville has completed $1.1 million in wildfire mitigation work to the east of the townsite and is gearing up for the next phase of work. As the warming climate raises the risk of fire, Coleman sees the work as crucial to protect a valuable piece of history.

The National Historic Site, which Coleman likes to think of as a living museum, employs more than 150 people, and the province estimates that it has an annual $20-$25 million economic impact on the region.

"Every community in B.C. that has a forest interface needs to be doing this, for sure," Coleman said.

'Difficult work'

To date, the work has been concentrated on a 52-hectare stretch of land to the east of the townsite.

Contractors have built a fire access road, clearing 10 metres of forest on either side to act as a fuel break. The rest of the forest has been thinned out, and the branches on the remaining trees have been removed up to about three metres from the ground — all to slow the spread of fire and prevent it from jumping into the crown.

Wildfire prevention efforts east of Barkerville include a new fire access road with fuel breaks, left, as well as thinning of the forest. (Courtesy Ed Coleman)

It took the efforts of about 10 people and a lot of machinery to get this done.

"It's difficult work, because we're at 4,300 feet [elevation] and there are slopes in some of the areas and you're dealing with snowpack — at parts of the time, three feet deep," Coleman said.

To add to those challenges, the area is dotted with historic mine shafts and other sites that may have archeological importance. Those spots had to be cordoned off while the rest of the forest was dealt with.

The project was partially funded by the Forest Enhancement Society of B.C., but for the most part, it paid for itself.

The majority of the expenses were covered by selling the wood from the trees that were removed, Coleman said. The remaining debris was bound for the wood chipper and will be used for fuel at Cariboo Pulp and Paper.

Plans for the next phase have been drafted, but Barkerville management will need approval from the B.C. Heritage Branch before moving ahead with the work. Coleman is hoping to start within the next six weeks.

In the meantime, B.C.'s long-term forecast is calling for yet another warmer than normal summer, coming on the heels of a dry winter and spring, and the Canadian Wildland Information System is predicting wildfire conditions that are well above average for most of the province.

It took a crew of about 10 people to complete the $1.1 million fuel mitigation project. (Courtesy Ed Coleman)

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