Climate Change Adaptation and Wildfire Protection in a Community Forest (Harrop-Procter, BC)

As of March 2021, Forest Manager of the Harrop-Procter Co-op, Erik Leslie and the rest of the Co-op continue to refine their climate change adaptation and wildfire protection plan to increase resilience to wildfire events such as that of 2003 which destroyed thousands of acres of forest in the vicinity and forced the evacuation of the community. The Harrop-Proctor Co-op manages 11,300 hectares of Provincial Forest Crown land between the two namesake communities near Nelson, British Columbia, located in the southeast of the province. The adaptation and wildfire protection plan uses provincial climate data as well as historic data to explore the consequences climate change may have on local homes and infrastructure, water, biodiversity, and timber. Based on this data, the Co-op has created a series of maps to visualize the implications. The plan also identifies a range of current and future actions available to the Harrop-Procter Co-op to address oncoming climate change. One such action is a study spearheaded by the University of British Columbia to test the health and growth of various tree species in the area to determine which would be most resilient in future projected climate conditions. The plan has thus far relied heavily on public input and intends to continue this trend through future meetings. Further development of the project is forthcoming with the planning phase set to be completed in June 2021.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Harrop-Procter Community Co-op went about understanding and assessing impacts by analyzing provincial climate change data as well conducting risk assessments. The area has already experienced a number of significant wildfire events including one in 2003 which sparked initial recognition of the need to address and adapt to future climate change related events. Another large fire event in 2017 further highlighted the gravity of the situation. In order to systematically understand the impacts of wildfire events in the area extensive risk mapping was undertaken. This mapping aided in balancing priorities of conserving natural habitats as well as protecting human health and included current data as well as future projections. Historical data was employed to visualize various aspects of the area and individual variables which may contribute to wildfire probability in the present such as forest canopy fuel weight, soil moisture, and ecosystem moisture. Historical data was also used to plot the extent, date and cause of past wildfire events (with many attributed to lightning strikes). Finally, the mapping also utilized provincial climate data projections in order to understand the consequences wildfires would have on nearby homes and infrastructure, water, biodiversity, and timber. It was deemed that any built form, timber or biodiversity which currently resides on dry or ‘submesic’ land should be considered a top priority. Further, headwater areas with high fuel loads should also be carefully protected. Comparisons were made between 2018 and 2085 scenarios. Climatic projections for the area show that the summer season will get warmer and drier while the fall, winter and spring will become wetter with increased instances of extreme precipitation. Given this, summer wildfire events are expected to become more extensive in the future.

Identifying Actions

Actions were identified through the operations strategy developed by the Co-op. The operations strategy considered previous risk assessment activities to identify how the Harrop-Procter Co-op may log while simultaneously regenerating the forest in order to create resilience to future wildfire events. Specifically, the operations strategy suggested possible alterations to existing actions such as wildfire fuel reduction (through thinning) and landscape fire breaks. These operational considerations were informed by the risk assessment mapping briefly outlined under the Understanding and Assessing Impacts section of this case study as well as by a deliberate review of core assumptions (fire, drought and growth rates etc.) and current practices. Actions such as the intentional introduction of those tree species and provenances which are more resilient to drought conditions are also being undertaken by removing highly flammable cedar and hemlock trees and retaining species such as Douglas-fir, pine, larch and deciduous trees. However, more testing is needed to better pinpoint ideal species and provenance mixes. To this end, the Co-op has partnered with UBC professor Suzanne Simard and her team as part of a larger study which plants and monitors the seedling health and growth of various species and provenances with an eye towards understanding forest regeneration in a changing climate. This study in particular has been labelled as long-term. While many of the undertaken actions are ongoing and ever-evolving, current iterations of these actions were intended to be further solidified in 2019 and 2020 and focus on the relevant risks of the next 20 to 40 years, however, conclusion of the plan is now set for June 2021.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The results of current actions such as fuel reduction and landscape breaks have likely reduced the vulnerability of both natural and human environments to wildfire events. Further, these actions also have the added benefit of supporting the continued operation of the Co-op. It has been noted that “steep and/or remote terrain and creek gullies” will likely continue to present a challenge to creating fuel breaks although “hand-built fire guards” have been suggested as a possible solution. The desired outcomes of the Climate Change Adaptation and Wildfire Protection Plan have been explicitly identified and include integration of climate change projections into decision-making, “community wildfire protection understood in a broader context”, resident engagement, operationalization of the plan, and communication of the results and methods. These outcomes will likely be tracked through future meetings and workshops. The Co-op also notes that many of the choices as to the actions it carries out leave behind inherent risk be it to the human or natural environment and so achieving an appropriate balance will likely continue to present as a challenge. One particular action, the previously mentioned study spearheaded by Professor Suzanne Simard which introduces a variety of seedling species and provenances to the area has pinpointed two components of its research which will require monitoring and evaluation. Firstly, seedling health, growth, and linkages to existing mycorrhizal networks will be monitored. Additionally, carbon cycling and soil biodiversity will also be measured. This study will ultimately provide benefit to six different research sites in six climate zones in the British Columbia Interior through the insight it gains into various species’ suitability in particular climates.

Next Steps

The Harrop-Procter Co-op has identified a number of actions that should be considered moving forward. The Co-op has expressed the need for multiple additional public meetings in order to refine the plan as well as the need for discussion with the Harrop-Procter Community Co-op board on the topic. The value of a practitioners’ workshop, presumably on the alterations to current practices, was also identified. Implementation of actions identified throughout the plan are not anticipated to be fully completed until at least the end of the decade. In terms of next steps related to the University of British Columbia (UBC) Professor Suzanne Simard’s previously mentioned study, monitoring and evaluation needs have been outlined, however, the need for iteration is unclear. Lastly, an additional case study completed by the UBC which broadly considers the forest resource management in Harrop-Procter suggests that there may be a place for increased urban forestry within the communities in order to shift focus away from timber and towards tourism. This strategy may also aid to temper projected increases in fall, winter, and spring rainfall.