Day 6

When it comes to backcountry forest fires, ecologist says 'let 'em burn'

As more than 100 wildfires continue to burn in B.C., ecologist Chad Hanson says we should let backcountry fires burn. Hanson says fires can benefit the land and wildlife, and argues that the money spent on fighting fires in remote areas could be better spent protecting urban areas.​
Smoke is seen rising in front of the sun as a wildfire burns near Little Fort, B.C. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

You have to go back decades to find a year when fires in B.C. were worse than they are this summer. In terms of land lost, 2017 is the second worst year ever and may eventually surpass 1958's record of 8500 square kilometres. Tens of thousands of people are on evacuation notice. Firefighters are trekking to B.C. from Mexico, the United States, New Zealand and Australia to join the 3700 personnel battling the blaze.

It's very dangerous work and forest ecologist Chad Hanson says some of it shouldn't be happening.

"We're unnecessarily putting the lives of firefighters at risk trying to stop weather driven fires that can't be stopped in the back country, forest fires that are not destroying forest ecosystems like we used to think," he tells CBC Day 6.

Fire crews assess and fell dangerous trees in the southwest section of the Verdant Creek wildfire near Highway 93S in a handout photo from Parks Canada. (Canaidan Press/Parks Canada-M.Kinley )

Hanson says redirecting the resources and money spent on fighting back country fires could increase the safety of rural homes while improving the ecological health of the forest that's left to burn. It's an argument that seems counter-intuitive to the traditional messaging of fire prevention. But Hanson is convinced he's right.

"I think that we know we need to adjust."

Burned but not dead

Chad Hanson is the director and principal ecologist of the John Muir Project. (Rachel Fazio)
Chad Hanson has a Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of California. He's also a lawyer and the founder and principal ecologist of the John Muir project, a forest advocacy group aimed at restoring ecosystems "degraded and damaged by decades of commercial logging and suppression of wildland fires." 

Hanson says we've been misled into believing a burned out forest is a catastrophe.

"I've been told that these fires destroyed wildlife habitat and the forests wouldn't regenerate," he says.

"Well, you know, I started going to these fires that were described as catastrophic."

"And when I went in and I started actually gathering data what I found was tremendous abundance of wildlife. Many of these species are actually more abundant in those fire areas than they are in the unburned forests nearby. And I was finding incredibly vigorous natural regeneration of the forest."

Hanson says a burned area can become a forest's most abundant habitat.

"We call it snag forest habitat," he says, "in those patches where it burns hotter and kills most or all the trees."

A Black-backed Woodpecker in a snag forest patch in the Sierra Nevada. Woodpeckers eat the grubs that grow in the trunks of charred trees. (Craig Swolgaard / John Muir Project)

"In a lot of the forests, especially the forests where most of these fires are burning in British Columbia, fires are mixed intensity... In many, if not most areas, the trees are largely still alive after the fire.  Especially the mature trees but there are patches where it kills most or all the trees and that's actually very, very comparable in terms of wildlife abundance and native diversity to unburned old forests."

You're not losing the forest; the forests simply transition into post fire habitat.- Chad Hanson

"I think that the key thing is: we're not losing anything when the fires burn in the forest. You're not losing the forest; the forests simply transition into post fire habitat. Most of these areas still have predominately surviving trees. Even where you have high intensity fire, those patches where fire kills all of the trees, or almost all, the forests have evolved with fire and they naturally regenerate."

Making a priority of protecting people and property


Hanson believes diverting resources away from the back country will ultimately help keep people and their property out of danger.

"We should redirect resources and focus on protecting communities, both in terms of fire suppression and in terms of what we call defensible space. That's basically when you're removing the understory vegetation and the lower limbs on the mature trees within about 60 feet of homes, as well as taking steps to make those homes more fire safe: metal roofs fire resistant siding, things like that."

A home destroyed by wildfire is seen on the Ashcroft First Nation in August. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"We know that fire is destructive when it burns into a community. And that's the real tragedy if homes are lost, if people are hurt or lives are lost."

"If we allow back country fires to burn and don't spend that money trying to stop them — because you really can't stop a weather driven fire, it's not possible — and instead we redirect that money into home protection, we could actually significantly increase the fire safety of rural homes."

It's not clear how an unsuppressed back country fire would affect air quality issues for communities like Kamloops which faced considerable challenges due to this summer's fires.

Air quality is considered in the B.C. government's Wildfire Management Strategy as it advocates for allowing some fires to burn without suppression. It calls for more public education to explain the benefit of controlled burns. The danger posed by fires is clear, but there's less understanding of how it helps the forest.

Snag forest habitat 12 years after a large, high-intensity fire in Sierra Nevada. (Chad Hanson)

Even Chad Hanson acknowledges the conflicting messages, but stresses the ecological value of the snag forest.

"I find it very encouraging and hopeful'" he says, "because I'm seeing something really good where we've been told for many decades that only bad things happen."

To hear the full interview with Chad Hanson, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.