Establishing a Comprehensive Wildfire Risk Reduction Strategy

Recognizing that climate change is increasing the likelihood of forest fires, and the transmission of fire across the wildland-urban interface, the City of Quesnel, British Columbia, chose to take a more involved approach to their wildfire mitigation strategy when the previous plan came up for review in 2017. Climate change is exacerbating the threat of wildland fires by multiple vectors. In addition to causing climatic shifts that lead to a longer and more intense fire seasons, it is also responsible for increasing the amount of highly-flammable dead wood in forests. The Mountain Pine Beetle is causing high rates of tree mortality across Western Canada. The population of the species was previously kept in check by consistently low temperatures throughout the winter. However, changing weather patterns have led to a population boom that has resulted in widespread devastation of forests. These dead trees then increase the chance of a forest fire due to their dry and highly flammable nature. One of the components of this plan, fuel management by vegetation clearance, has had other positive effects in the community beyond the stated purposes of increasing outreach and improve fire resilience. The program has led to an expansion of the local trail system and an ongoing revision of the local land management practices.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

The mountain pine beetle is an insect that infects lodgepole pine trees and is the cause of severe infestations affecting the health of forests in British Columbia and Alberta. While mountain pine beetles can cause significant damage to forests, they are also increasing wildfire severity. Rapid growth of beetle populations in Western Canada has been caused by the changing climate. Temperatures in winter months have not been cold enough to prevent the spread of these insects, which has led to larger areas being infested. In British Columbia alone, the outbreak of the mountain pine beetle has affected over 18 million hectares of forest. This threat required a new approach to fire management. According to Bob Simpson, Mayor of the City of Quesnel, the mountain pine beetle epidemic gave an early indication that wildfire risk faced by municipalities like Quesnel was going to become fundamentally different than what had been experienced before. Mayor Simpson’s background in forestry made him very well aware of the wildfire risk faced by Quesnel when he was elected for his first term in 2014. He made it a priority to address this growing threat by engaging his municipal government in discussions about fire risk management strategies. The Mayor and his team convinced members of the municipal council that one of the community’s priorities should be to better manage the forests and that this work would have to start at the municipal level as there were limited provincial supports at that time. This led to the establishment of a think tank process where an overall strategy to reduce wildfire risk was developed by the City.

Identifying Actions

The City of Quesnel had prepared an initial Community Wildfire Protection Plan in 2007. The Plan was focused on fuel management in at-risk areas of the community with an overall intervention target of 2,000 hectares of land. Unfortunately, only 20 hectares of land was treated. When the time came to renew the plan in 2017, local leadership advised council that updating the document would require serious decisions about the protection work that needed to be completed. As the Plan was updated, severe wildfires in British Columbia combined with changes in provincial leadership led to more resources available to municipalities for investments in wildfire risk reduction. The new Plan revealed that the main areas of concern were located on Crown land or private land. The City developed a fuel management intervention strategy around two main priorities, which involved direct fuel management in areas on Crown land in the city or adjacent to the city, and increased education and engagement around FireSmart measures for private property owners. When asked about the fuel management strategy adopted by the City of Quesnel, Mayor Simpson mentioned that “it was crucial for the community to adopt this two-fold strategy as there was no point investing in our vulnerable territory on public lands if our risk around private properties remained high.”

Implementation

When it came to promoting FireSmart practices around private properties, municipal staff quickly sensed resistance among certain property owners who were worried that implementing FireSmart measures would completely remove the presence of nature around their homes. To address these concerns, the municipality set up a demonstration of FireSmart principles on airport land, which included a trail system with interpretive signage to demonstrate how specific strategies might look. Erin Robinson, the Forestry Initiatives Manager for the City of Quesnel, who co-authored the Plan and manages its implementation stated, “it’s important that everyone in the community buys into the concept of FireSmart. Over 60 percent of our lands in the Plan are private, so we need everyone on the same page.” The City of Quesnel also invested in fuel management along the various trails in the community. This fuel management effort, which started with pruning trees along the edges of the trails, ended up bringing several additional benefits to the community. The City has since extended some of the existing trails to facilitate access for firefighters in the eventuality of a wildfire. In addition, the development of the trail system combined with fuel management along the various paths is now providing additional open views that were not accessible before, allowing hikers to enjoy new scenery around the community.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

Outcomes:

  • New 3km public trail network within City limits that demonstrates fire mitigation treatments and has a large educational kiosk
  • Increased collaboration among agencies to complete the fuel mitigation work in the CWPP (City, FLNRO, BCTS, West Fraser, local licenses and contractors, Parks)
  • CWPP enabled approx. 10,000 hours of community employment (not including the City staff)
  • Private land campaign: to date, 70 homes and buildings in Quesnel and area have been assessed for fire hazard, and 26 rebates have been fulfilled (total $13,000); Produced over 30 communication materials (newspaper ads, press releases, radio segments, surveys, flyers, newsletters, emails and Facebook posts); average impact per communication: ~2,000 reached and ~450 engaged; campaign will continue for 2021 and possibly beyond pending funding

Monitoring Progress:

  • Multi-agency meeting to be convened by the City in 2021 to track overall progress on the CWPP, collect challenges/lessons learned, begin to plan for the upcoming CWPP renewal (2022)
  • The Forestry Initiatives Program is involved in several research projects to contribute to overall understanding of landscape management and wildfire, including:
    • Quesnel is one of 5 pilots in BC for the Forest Landscape Pilot (FLP), and the City is part of the committee; the goal is to develop an integrated planning process that brings together various parties to tackle complex resource use issues to restructure landscape dynamics and limit future wildfires and insect outbreaks
    • Quesnel is the provincial hub for a federal project “Silv@21” aimed at developing silvicultural solutions for 21st Century challenges linked to climate change, and the City if taking part; Research outcomes will inform how to maintain jobs, incorporate First Nations’ interests, and address the economic, cultural, recreational as well as other uses of B.C.’s land base
    • City is conducting a wood products manufacturing analysis aimed at optimizing fibre use to bolster our economy, and resulting in decreased fire risk

Next Steps

In addition to the various initiatives in place around wildfire risk reduction in Quesnel, the community is also working towards the establishment of a community forest. This concept involves the municipality, four local First Nation Governments, and the regional district taking control of forestry operations in an area-based tenure. The municipality is currently hoping the transfer of forestry operations to the community forest partners will be approved in the near future as this would allow the community and its partners to have greater control over community protection, both from a pest control and wildfire risk perspective.


Understanding and Assessing Impacts

The mountain pine beetle is an insect that infects lodgepole pine trees and is the cause of severe infestations affecting the health of forests in British Columbia and Alberta. While mountain pine beetles can cause significant damage to forests, they are also increasing wildfire severity. Rapid growth of beetle populations in Western Canada has been caused by the changing climate. Temperatures in winter months have not been cold enough to prevent the spread of these insects, which has led to larger areas being infested. In British Columbia alone, the outbreak of the mountain pine beetle has affected over 18 million hectares of forest. This threat required a new approach to fire management. According to Bob Simpson, Mayor of the City of Quesnel, the mountain pine beetle epidemic gave an early indication that wildfire risk faced by municipalities like Quesnel was going to become fundamentally different than what had been experienced before. Mayor Simpson’s background in forestry made him very well aware of the wildfire risk faced by Quesnel when he was elected for his first term in 2014. He made it a priority to address this growing threat by engaging his municipal government in discussions about fire risk management strategies. The Mayor and his team convinced members of the municipal council that one of the community’s priorities should be to better manage the forests and that this work would have to start at the municipal level as there were limited provincial supports at that time. This led to the establishment of a think tank process where an overall strategy to reduce wildfire risk was developed by the City.

Identifying Actions

The City of Quesnel had prepared an initial Community Wildfire Protection Plan in 2007. The Plan was focused on fuel management in at-risk areas of the community with an overall intervention target of 2,000 hectares of land. Unfortunately, only 20 hectares of land was treated. When the time came to renew the plan in 2017, local leadership advised council that updating the document would require serious decisions about the protection work that needed to be completed. As the Plan was updated, severe wildfires in British Columbia combined with changes in provincial leadership led to more resources available to municipalities for investments in wildfire risk reduction. The new Plan revealed that the main areas of concern were located on Crown land or private land. The City developed a fuel management intervention strategy around two main priorities, which involved direct fuel management in areas on Crown land in the city or adjacent to the city, and increased education and engagement around FireSmart measures for private property owners. When asked about the fuel management strategy adopted by the City of Quesnel, Mayor Simpson mentioned that “it was crucial for the community to adopt this two-fold strategy as there was no point investing in our vulnerable territory on public lands if our risk around private properties remained high.”

Implementation

When it came to promoting FireSmart practices around private properties, municipal staff quickly sensed resistance among certain property owners who were worried that implementing FireSmart measures would completely remove the presence of nature around their homes. To address these concerns, the municipality set up a demonstration of FireSmart principles on airport land, which included a trail system with interpretive signage to demonstrate how specific strategies might look. Erin Robinson, the Forestry Initiatives Manager for the City of Quesnel, who co-authored the Plan and manages its implementation stated, “it’s important that everyone in the community buys into the concept of FireSmart. Over 60 percent of our lands in the Plan are private, so we need everyone on the same page.” The City of Quesnel also invested in fuel management along the various trails in the community. This fuel management effort, which started with pruning trees along the edges of the trails, ended up bringing several additional benefits to the community. The City has since extended some of the existing trails to facilitate access for firefighters in the eventuality of a wildfire. In addition, the development of the trail system combined with fuel management along the various paths is now providing additional open views that were not accessible before, allowing hikers to enjoy new scenery around the community.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

Outcomes:

  • New 3km public trail network within City limits that demonstrates fire mitigation treatments and has a large educational kiosk
  • Increased collaboration among agencies to complete the fuel mitigation work in the CWPP (City, FLNRO, BCTS, West Fraser, local licenses and contractors, Parks)
  • CWPP enabled approx. 10,000 hours of community employment (not including the City staff)
  • Private land campaign: to date, 70 homes and buildings in Quesnel and area have been assessed for fire hazard, and 26 rebates have been fulfilled (total $13,000); Produced over 30 communication materials (newspaper ads, press releases, radio segments, surveys, flyers, newsletters, emails and Facebook posts); average impact per communication: ~2,000 reached and ~450 engaged; campaign will continue for 2021 and possibly beyond pending funding

Monitoring Progress:

  • Multi-agency meeting to be convened by the City in 2021 to track overall progress on the CWPP, collect challenges/lessons learned, begin to plan for the upcoming CWPP renewal (2022)
  • The Forestry Initiatives Program is involved in several research projects to contribute to overall understanding of landscape management and wildfire, including:
    • Quesnel is one of 5 pilots in BC for the Forest Landscape Pilot (FLP), and the City is part of the committee; the goal is to develop an integrated planning process that brings together various parties to tackle complex resource use issues to restructure landscape dynamics and limit future wildfires and insect outbreaks
    • Quesnel is the provincial hub for a federal project “Silv@21” aimed at developing silvicultural solutions for 21st Century challenges linked to climate change, and the City if taking part; Research outcomes will inform how to maintain jobs, incorporate First Nations’ interests, and address the economic, cultural, recreational as well as other uses of B.C.’s land base
    • City is conducting a wood products manufacturing analysis aimed at optimizing fibre use to bolster our economy, and resulting in decreased fire risk

Next Steps

In addition to the various initiatives in place around wildfire risk reduction in Quesnel, the community is also working towards the establishment of a community forest. This concept involves the municipality, four local First Nation Governments, and the regional district taking control of forestry operations in an area-based tenure. The municipality is currently hoping the transfer of forestry operations to the community forest partners will be approved in the near future as this would allow the community and its partners to have greater control over community protection, both from a pest control and wildfire risk perspective.

Resources