Forest informed
February 16, 2022

Wildfire management in B.C.: protecting biodiversity and communities

Fire has shaped ecosystems on Earth ever since there was vegetation and an ignition source, including lightning, to ignite them.

In addition to these natural processes, human use and management of fire have also impacted ecosystems and biodiversityPrior to European settlement, many Indigenous peoples in B.C. used fire to sustain biodiversity and break up the landscape to limit fire spread and severity. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, as natural and human-caused fires impacted growing communities, fire suppression practices begana practice that through the decades has impacted the development of forest ecosystems.


New ways to think about the natural role of fire in healthy forests

Today, the impacts of climate change on forest health with B.C.’s more than 100 years of fire exclusion and suppression is highlighting new challenges and shifting paradigms in forest and fire management. Resource managers are looking at ways to restore the natural role of fire in the landscapeto support resilient, healthy forests while reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire.  

Regenerating forest l Photo credit: Diego Sanchez

Cut block regeneration

The role of wildfire in B.C.: a force of disturbance and renewal

B.C. is the most biologically diverse province in Canada, ranging from desert and dry inland ponderosa pine forests in the Interior to Pacific coastal temperate rainforests. Natural disturbance is a force of renewal in all forest types, but the predominant mode of disturbance and frequency varies greatly by forest type.  

 Ecologists have classified ecosystems across the province into five natural disturbance types, with the main differentiator being the frequency of “stand-replacing fire”that is, fire large and intense enough to kill all or most of the overstory trees in a forest and initiate natural regrowth of vegetation. 

Map courtesy of Ministry of Forests, Forest Analysis and Inventory Branch

natural disturbance types of BC map FLNRORD
The story with overstory

In forests, what are overstory trees?

Overstory trees are the uppermost trees in a forest, the portion of trees that form a canopy layer. As the word implies, there can be multiple stories of trees, like there can be multiple levels of a house. Learn more about this term and more in the Ecological Restoration Guidelines for B.C.’s glossary of terms.


Fire adaptation

Species that can take the heat

Wetter coastal and inland areas of B.C., like the west coast of Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii, can expect to have a large fire every 250 years or more, while in dry areas of the province like Kamloops and Cache Creeklarge fires can be expected every 4 to 50 years. The species distribution in these ecosystems is impacted, in part, by the frequency and intensity of fires.  

Many ecosystems in drier regions are adapted to the role of fire in ecosystem maintenance. Ponderosa pines, for example, can withstand low-intensity brush fires. For other species such as Interior lodgepole pine, the heat from the fires helps release seeds from serotinous cones specially evolved to harness the power of fire for regeneration.  

The thick bark of trees like ponderosa pines (pictured) allows them to survive low-intensity fires. l Photo credit: Barbara Zimonick

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Wildfire is an essential ecosystem function and evolutionary force

Dr. Lori Daniels is a professor in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at The University of British Columbia. In her research, she studies how natural disturbances, humans and climate interact in temperate regions to impact forest dynamics and resilience.  

“Wildfire is an essential ecosystem function and evolutionary force that has shaped the ecology of many trees, plants and fauna,” says Daniels. “In British Columbia, we have many ecosystem types that need fire to maintain biodiversityand in fact, we see strong correlations between biodiversity in areas where frequent fires are common.”  

Vegetation begins to grow again among the charred remains of a Douglas-fir stand outside 100 Mile House. l Photo credit: Michael Bednar

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“Healthy forests rely on fire, and this truth must be incorporated into our forest management approaches, particularly given the impacts of climate change.” 

Dr. Lori Daniels, Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at The University of British Columbia 


What are serotinous cones and which trees in B.C. have them?

Most plants, including trees drop their seeds during and just after the ripening period. Serotinous trees store their seeds in cones or pods and wait for an environmental event, like a fire. The heat melts the resin adhesive, the cone scales open to expose the seed that then drop or drift after several days to a burned but cool planting bed. These seeds do best on the burnt soil available to them. This is the process of serotiny. 

 Trees evolved and developed the ability to resist high heat and eventually began using that heat in their reproduction cycle. In B.C., Interior lodgepole pine and black spruce are examples of species that have serotinous cones. 

Lodgepole pine cone. l Photo credit: Barbara Zimonick 


Firekeeping and fire management

The shaping of forest dynamics in B.C. is not restricted to naturally occurring wildfire. Before settlers arrived, Indigenous cultural burning was practiced across Canada to support agriculture, to encourage the regeneration of medicinal and food plants, to attract certain animals with the regenerating vegetation, and for other cultural purposes. 

Tim Lezard is a councillor with the Penticton Indian Band and is responsible for the Band Council’s lands, natural resource, and environment portfolio. His grandmother was a firekeeper who actively managed the land until she passed away in 2003.

“My grandmother would be given jobs by the older people, to burn the land for rejuvenation,” he shares. “The land needed to be cleaned, for us and for the animals, to maintain the grasslands and the plants that support our communities and the animals like deer and elk.” For generations the people of the Penticton Indian Band used fire to improve forests and knew effective methods for burning patches of land on rotation each year—knowledge gained from elders and passed on to through traditional teachings.

“The practice and knowledge of firekeeping has been passed down through our oral traditions, and our management of forests was very effective,” Lezard says. “When settlers first came to these lands, they thought the forests were so beautiful and “pristine,” but that was a fallacy—it was beautiful, but it wasn’t untouched. It was touched and managed by our firekeepers, and was beautiful because we were managing the lands through the use of fire.”

In the early 1900s, forest fires were deemed to be counter to the public interestthreatening lives, settlements, and communities, destroying valuable timber, and putting livestock at risk. Igniting forest fires was made illegal, and investments were made in forest firefighting infrastructure.

Summer wildfire near Alkali Lake in the Cariboo region. l Photo credit: Michael Bednar 


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Role of the BC Wildfire Service

The BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) was established in 1912, and today, specialized crews face on average 1,600 fires per year in the province. Its core mandate is to protect life and assets from wildfireand BCWS is very successful in discharging this mandatewith the agency successfully detecting and containing 94 per cent of all wildfires by 10 AM the day following ignition.

Built in 1953, Hope’s forest service lookout was a one-room wooden structure with glass windows and a wrap-around catwalk perched on top of a wooden platform. l Photo courtesy of John Andrews 



Hope forest service lookout John Andrews

Addressing the increasing scale and intensity of wildfires

Tony Pesklevits is Strategic Advisor with BCWS and works to develop wildfire management strategies and programs for the province. “In the early to mid1900s, the BCWS mandate was very much focused on protecting the timber resourcethis was the era of watchtowers and backcountry rangers, and the work was seen as an extension of forestry,” he shares. “Our focus began to shift in the 1980s and 1990s as wildfires became more and more of an issue in communitiesthe most significant example at that time being the Kelowna fires of 2003, which led to the Filmon Report. Since then, prevention and risk reduction have become a core and growing part of BCWS’ mandate. 

The scale and intensity of wildfires in the province have been increasing since statistics began being collected in 1950, five of the seven worst fire seasons on record have occurred since 2014. In 2017, 2018 and 2021, B.C. experienced devastating fire seasons that saw hundreds of homes lost to wildfirethousands of people and communities evacuated and serious air quality and health impacts, along with catastrophic environmental effectsThe cause of this increase in fire activity and severity is two-foldthe impacts of climate change combined with the increase in fuel owing to decades of successful fire suppression. And when it comes to climate change, forest fires are both intensified by a warmer climate and contributing to it—wildfires release significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.   

Forestry worker thinning a forest to prevent large forest fires. Proactive brush and tree thinning, and controlled burns can help reduce the risk of large forest fires. l Photo credit: stockstudioX via Getty Images 

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“By suppressing fires, we have increased fuel loads in our forests, eliminated fire breaks and created uniform, uninterrupted forest cover, and also maintained forests in older states than would naturally occur, making them more susceptible to disease and drought,” says Daniels. “And at the same time, we have the impacts of climate change, which exacerbates wildfire in many ways—the most obvious being maximum temperatures and drought, which makes fires easier to ignite and harder to control once started. The emissions from wildfires, in turn, exacerbate the climate crisis, creating a true vicious circle.  

For the people at BCWS, climate change means changing conditions on the ground and bigger impacts on the people who do the work as well. For us, climate change means earlier seasons, longer seasons, drier seasons and bigger and more severe fires. It also means more drought, disease, and other stress on ecosystems that increase their susceptibility to fire,” says Pesklevits.  

 “As these impacts become more and more evident, we’ve continued to evolve as an organizationand not just in how we fight fires. For example, we have new programs focused on the health, safety, and resilience of our staff to equip them to take care of themselves as they face the challenges of longer and more intense seasons. And we’ve invested in new analysis tools to improve our ability to predict fire behaviour so that we can adapt more quickly to fast-changing conditions on the ground.”  

Fire-affected lodgepole pine overlooking Lake Okanagan. l Photo credit: Patrick Armstrong / Moresby Creative

Fire killed lodgepole pine , Lake Okanagan, BC

Seeing wildfire through a different lens

Today, the mandate of the BC Wildfire Service looks to preserve the natural role of fire while also protecting people and property. In describing the organization’s vision, Pesklevits draws clear connections to Indigenous leadership and traditional knowledge. 

 “Pyrodiversity is a mixture of fires of various severities and sizes. It sustains biodiversity and constrains the risk of large, catastrophic wildfires, by preventing the build-up of fuel and breaking up the landscape into a patchwork which limits fire spread and severity,” he explains.  

The exclusion of cultural burning has reduced this pyrodiversity, and returning to the managed, sustainable patchwork is a priority for the land managers like Tim Lezard of the Penticton Indian Band. “You can see the impacts of removing fire from the landscape—we now have big, hot burns that are very destructive, as well as too much ponderosa pine and tree cover that crowds out the plant species that support the animals and our own needs,” he says. “We are seeing more recognition of traditional knowledge and practices when it comes to fire, and we are working to see policies and practices change to respect the connectedness of the ecosystems and the role of fire.”  

It’s a goal that is echoed by the BC Wildfire Service. “Over the 20th century, as fires were suppressed, so were traditional knowledge and capacity. As a result, we’ve lost pyrodiversity, and with it, ecosystem health. One of the key strategies to restore the natural role of fire in B.C. is to work with First Nations and assist them in gathering and sharing their traditional knowledge, re-building their capacity and re-introducing cultural fire to their traditional territories.”

Summer wildfire at Alkali Lake in the Cariboo region. l Photo credit: Michael Bednar 

Summer wildfire at Alkali Lake, along Dog Creek Rd, in the Cariboo region of interior British Columbia.

The BC Wildfire Service and the government more broadly no longer see all fires as bad, quite the opposite. There is a recognition that uncontrollable mega-fires are what we want to avoid, and to do that, managers need to allow fire on the landscape in a way that is manageable, to reduce fuel loads, and support forest health. BCWS believes that fire may well be the biggest determinant of whether BC’s land management objectiveseconomic, conservation, cultural, recreationalcan be achieved in the 21st century. And the scope of the issue and its importance makes fire risk reduction, preparedness, response, and recovery a significant priority for the province and all British Columbians.  

Summer fire and smoke in the Caribou region. l Photo credit: Michael Bednar

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Cultural and prescribed burnings to prevent catastrophic wildfire

Proactively managing fuel loads and actively managing for the benefits of fire are key priorities for the prevention of catastrophic wildfire. Government resource managers are undertaking many management activities to deliver on these objectives, often collaboratively with communities and Indigenous nations whose territories interface with forests. An important tool is cultural or prescribed burningalso called planned fire.  

Fire-affected timber on Terrace Mountain. l Photo credit: Patrick Armstrong / Moresby Creative


Fire killed timber in Terrace Mountain, BC,

“At BCWS, we’re focused on re-integrating the safe, planned use of fire into the management toolkit for government agencies, foresters, wildlife managers, range specialists and other land management professionals,” shares Pesklevits. “We need to equip these professionals with the data, knowledge and experience to think carefully how fire will affect the ecosystems they manage—either beneficially, in the case of planned fire, or adversely, in the case of catastrophic wildfire, which will become more and more common with climate change, unless we reestablish pyrodiversity on the landscape.”

Tony Pesklevits, Strategic Advisor, BC Wildfire Service


When it comes to planned fire, what about smoke and air quality?

While planned fire is increasingly viewed as a critical tool for forest managers, it is often not well understood or supported by the public in general. Amongst the public, the biggest concern understandably relates to smoke and the associated air quality impacts.   

Detailed regulations dictate when cultural or prescribed fire can be undertaken so as to manage air quality impacts from smoke. Pesklevits notes that accepting the need to reduce the risk of uncontrolled fire means also balancing the air quality impacts of well-timed, controlled fire versus catastrophic wildfire.  

In recent wildfire seasons we’ve seen prolonged periods of very serious air quality issues in many communitiesthere was a period this summer when Revelstoke had the worst measured air quality on the planet,” he says. “With climate change driving increased risk of catastrophic wildfire seasons, there really is no “no smoke” option to choose from. We need to evaluate the relatively minor smoke impacts of well-planned burning in good venting conditions (when smoke disperses quickly) against the much more serious impacts of weeks-long air quality advisories that we continue to see in bad fire seasons.” 

Public outreach and education are a priority, to build understanding for the need for planned fire, and for how forest managers undertake this activity safely and with a view to mitigate risk and impacts on communities. “When people haven’t seen fire in 100 years, except large catastrophic wildfires, they view it as negative and destructive,” says Lezard.  

Summer wildfire at Alkali Lake in the Cariboo region. l Photo credit: Michael Bednar

Summer wildfire at Alkali Lake, along Dog Creek Rd, in the Cariboo region of interior British Columbia. Michael Bednar

“We, as Indigenous peoples, know the importance of fire through our traditions and our stories. For the broader public, we need to work to quantify and communicate the benefits to build understanding.”

Tim Lezard, Councillor, Penticton Indian Band

Curious about fire management programs?

The B.C. government recently launched a website to profile the work that goes into planning and executing a prescribed fire project. By reintroducing the natural role of fire to the management of B.C.’s forests, resource managers are focused on improving community safety, forest health, biodiversity and environmental health.   

Summer wildfire in the Okanagan region. l Photo credit: Michael Bednar