Tackling a future of expected 'extreme' wildfires in B.C.

It’s only May, but there’s already been 113 wildfires in B.C. this year.

It might seem like a lot, but compared to last year, those numbers are significantly lower due to a cold, wet spring.

“Our temperatures are looking below seasonal," said Erika Berg, a provincial wildfire information officer. "As well, we’ve had some pretty fair precipitation, even in areas like the Interior.”

But a good start to the season doesn’t mean B.C. is out of the woods long-term.

“Due to the effects of climate change, extreme weather events like the heat dome that we experienced last year are that much more likely,” said Berg. “Meanwhile, fire seasons are that much more extreme.”

So how does B.C. prepare for a future with more “extreme” wildfires? A former wildland firefighter turned researcher has some ideas.

“One of the things that we can do … a little bit more proactively is shifting what there is available to burn and actually create … fire breaks on the landscape,” explained Mathieu Bourbonnais, assistant professor of earth, environment and geographic sciences at UBC Okanagan.

“That could be through mechanical thinning or hand thinning in forests around communities and space out fuels and reduce the fuel loads.”

Bourbonnais said prescribed burns are another means of lowering the intensity of wildfires when they happen.

“People are tending today to call it good fire, putting fire back on the landscape in kind of a controlled manner to reduce the overall fuels that are available,” he said.

Reducing wildfire risk may also mean looking at how replanting is done and replanting with more fire-resistant trees like Aspens.

“There’s a lot of … forests out there that are very much single-species forest and single-age stands, that if a fire gets into that, it can spread rapidly, so thinking a little bit differently about how we replant (is important),” Bourbonnais said.

His research includes using sensors flown from aircraft or drones to develop three-dimensional models of forests.

“We can look at how a forest is structured, both vertically and horizontally, to understand how the fuels are configured and if a fire happened there, where are your most high-risk zones and how we might mitigate that,” he said.

He believes building resilience to extreme fires requires a more proactive approach.

And despite the slow start to the fire season, all that could change in an instant.