British Columbia

Massive replant of B.C.'s fire-ravaged forests threatened by fears of spreading COVID-19

A massive reforestation effort in the B.C. Interior slated for this summer is raising concerns about tree planters from across Canada spreading COVID-19 to remote communities.

Workers slated to come from across Canada to plant 300 million tree seedlings

The mayor of Vanderhoof, B.C., says hundreds of millions of seedlings need to be planted soon or they'll end up as compost. (Free Images)

The fate of B.C.'s biggest ever reforestation effort is on the line.

Thousands of tree planters from across Canada are ready to put more than 300 million seedlings in the ground to replace trees destroyed by wildfires and pine beetle infestations. The project will also increase carbon capture in B.C.'s forests to combat climate change. 

But this year's unprecedented plan to revive B.C.'s forests — already delayed once by COVID-19 concerns — could now be axed completely.

That's because some community leaders and local doctors fear tree planters could spread the illness across the B.C. Interior.

'More important to save a life'

"I feel it is more important to save a life than to save a tree," said Dr. Marile van Zyl, a general practitioner and emergency doctor in Fort St. James in north central B.C., who wants the planting season cancelled.

"It's millions of dollars [for] industry, but what's the worth of a human life?" said van Zyl. "We are living through unprecedented times." 

She notes many tree planters in B.C. come from Ontario and Quebec, where COVID-19 infection rates are much higher. 

For years, tree planters have ventured out from their remote camps  to communities like Fort St. James to do laundry, use wi-fi, take a shower or buy groceries. 

"They like to socialize, they like to explore," said van Zyl, adding that can spread the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Another source of potential infection, she said, is when tree planters turn to small town emergency rooms for injuries or illness.

Binche is a remote Indigenous community near Fort St. James in northern B.C. where a local doctor is raising concerns that tree planters could spread COVID-19 in the area. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC News )

Confined in camp

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, planting companies have been preparing tough new measures, including keeping workers confined to remote  camps for the season.

But van Zyl says even that may not be enough. 

"I don't know how they're really going to ensure that their workers stay in camp and don't come out to the community," she said.

Vanderhoof Mayor Gerry Thiessen says he's very concerned about his community's health, too.

But he hopes that with stringent safety measures, the planting season can proceed.

Seedlings need to be planted — or they're compost

"There's about 314 million seedlings ... here ready to be planted. And so either those seedlings are planted by fall  — or they are compost," said Thiessen.

The mayor said the fate of this planting season — and concerns about COVID-19 — are so pressing that he and 71 other local leaders gathered for a conference call with industry.

"What I've heard from many of the [community] leaders is, 'OK how can we [still] do this and be as absolutely safe as possible?' "Thiessen said.

Now. B.C.'s Ministry of Forests is poised to decide if tree planting will proceed, be delayed or cancelled altogether. Health officials are helping make that call.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told CBC News that talks have been underway for several days. 

"There's a very narrow window for the tree planting so that we don't lose a whole crop of young trees," said Henry.

Thousands of tree planters from across Canada, like the man in this file photo, are ready to plant a record number of seedlings in B.C.'s interior. (Lindsay MacLean, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources)

Work camps vs. tree planting camps 

"We've been talking about how can we do this. [How] we minimize risks. How can you ensure that anybody going into a particularly remote area … [doesn't] potentially become a burden on the community," said Henry.

Last month, Henry defended the decision to allow large industrial projects, like LNG Canada and Site C, to continue work during the pandemic. Some nearby communities raised concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19 in industrial work camps that housed up to 1,000 employees. 

"You can't just abandon a large mine or a large industrial site," Henry told CBC at the time.

"That's not safe, it's not safe for the local communities or the environment," said Henry noting camps were already using stringent COVID-19 prevention measures.

Vanderhoof's mayor says if industrial work camps are permitted, tree planting camps should be given due consideration.

"I have a real big concern on singling out one industry," said Thiessen."I think whatever we do for other industries, there needs to be something similar for tree planters."

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous national and provincial journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the national network Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based out of Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry. She also covered the 2010 Paralympics for national radio news.

With files from Daybreak North

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