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Burn, baby, burn

Why Yukon forest management companies can’t see the forest fire for the trees

BY Rebecca Addelman
Photography by Andy Clark/Reuters

Firefighters dumped one million litres of fire retardant on Yukon forests this year. Deploying the chemical mixture is expensive, and potentially harmful to the very forests they are meant to save.

The summer of 2004 was a landmark season in the Yukon. Almost two million hectares of forest—roughly the land mass of Northern Ireland—burned in wildfires across the territory. Unusual, to be sure, but according to biologists and fire experts it is merely a harbinger of things to come, and proof that Canada’s forest management policies have contributed directly to the crippling intensity of recent wildfires.

Prior to the 1980s, the most effective way to fight fire in the bush was to set fire to it. Known as prescribed burns, these government-sanctioned fires did their best to mimic Mother Nature. Mature forests were ignited when the time was right, the ensuing fire was contained and the forest eventually regenerated itself.

The problems started about 20 years ago, when fire-suppression policy in Canada went from eco-friendly to business friendly. It was then that most provinces and territories began leasing Crown land to forest management companies. In turn, the companies would build mills, harvest lumber and employ large portions of forest-dependent communities. These contractors have a keen interest in milling their mature crop—they don’t want to set it on fire. As a result, “prescribed burn” was virtually wiped out of the logging industry’s lexicon. Short-term profit margins won out over the long-term benefits of contained blazes.

With prescribed burns on the decline and forests over-maturing, fire officials are given no choice but to sit back and wait for the inevitable to happen—self-igniting, sweeping forces of nature. And when that does happen, forests are subject to one of two fates: they are coated with punishing quantities of fire retardant or completely levelled.

Neither option is particularly thrilling. In 2004, firefighters dumped more than one million litres of retardant—a chemical and dye mixture—on the Yukon. Though the chemical is billed as environmentally friendly, Al Beaver, the territory’s fire management supervisor, concedes that “in high concentrations, it could be detrimental to small water bodies.”

Reese Halter, an internationally acclaimed conservation biologist, agrees: “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. Anything human-made is adding unnatural substance into the forest.”

More troubling is the ballooning price tag attached. Dumping retardant means deploying large air tankers, which is expensive. So expensive, that last summer the Yukon spent $21 million on fire suppression, more than three times the $6.5 million it allocates annually to fight fire.

“The answer is prescribed burns,” says Beaver. “Fire can be a destructive agent, but it’s an agent of change.” However, short-sighted logging execs and communities worried about excess smoke continue to ignore the common sense advocates of prescribed burning. Instead, fire officials pounce on every stray spark and keep burning a hole in the fire-suppression budget.

Parks Canada, unfettered by land lease constraints, is beginning to reinstate prescribed burns, and its approach is working. Funds are being freed up and redirected to keep fire away from communities, and diverse forests are growing back at their leisure.

But if provincial and territorial governments don’t follow suit, Halter predicts a grim future for Canada and our logging industry. Generating billions of dollars a year, logging employs about 50,000 people in this country. But with the short harvesting season and Canada’s tendency to clear cut, our forests don’t grow back as quickly as those of our competitors in the US, Australia and New Zealand. Unless we start protecting our forest resources with wiser fire management choices now, we might wake up tomorrow to find fewer jobs and even fewer trees.


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