Support for community forests seen as key to wildfire prevention efforts

·3 min read

A new study is calling for more stable funding and expanded resources to support community forest organizations to keep their communities safer from forest fires.

The study by researchers at the University of BC interviewed two dozen community forest managers across BC. Their goal was to better understand community forest approaches to wildfire management, including the factors that enable innovation and the ongoing challenges they face.

And they found that while many community forests are taking the lead with wildfire management, they face significant challenges as the threat of wildfire grows due to climate change.

The record-breaking wildfire seasons in 2017 and 2018 acted as a catalyst to focus communities to enhance their wildfire prevention and preparedness, the authors say. Government programs poured millions into supporting community efforts to firesmart their areas.

Community foresters, with their emphasis on and connection with their local communities and areas, were in a unique position to build consensus and support for community actions.

However, to date the emphasis has mostly been on fuel management – clearing areas and reducing floor fuels. The report says as the risk of wildfire grows, managing the issue is going to take cross-jurisdictional and collaborative planning.

“This requires extensive trust-building and strong relationships between Community Forests, Indigenous communities, provincial government officials, fire scientists and other local stakeholders,” note the researchers.

The fire lens

As climate change makes the likelihood of larger and more severe fires, the community managers said forests have to be managed with a ‘fire lens.’

“As long as I’m manager [wildfire] won’t be off my radar,” the report quotes one manager saying. “I’ll keep pushing for it whether it’s raining or not... we live in a fire-based ecosystem, so it’s going to burn whether we want it to or not.”

And as the challenge grows, so does the size of the problem. Community forest managers say they can manage to a certain level of making their towns safer, but the landscape-level measures that have to be taken are beyond their capacity.

“…[L]imited financial capacity (including administrative burdens associated with accessing funding programs), a lack of operational and scientific expertise, community expectations, and the limitations of existing planning and legislative frameworks continue to pose challenges,” the authors say.

“Many Community Forests find it difficult to negotiate trade-offs between competing forest and wildfire management objectives, particularly when managing multi-value landscapes close to communities.”

The study emphasizes four key recommendations to build capacity and ensure that proactive wildfire management continues to be effective in BC:

• Continue multi-year funding programs for community wildfire protection. “these programs are critical for scaling up treatments to the landscape level,” says the report.

• Provide more tools and training for helping cash- and staff-strapped community forests build capacity to use strategies like prescribed burning and cultural burning led by Indigenous communities. “Smaller, newer, and more remote Community Forests often struggle to find the expertise and time to dedicate to wildfire management even when it is a priority,” the authors say.

• Continue to adjust land use planning and forest practice codes to prioritize wildfire reduction.

• Create community champions or government outreach positions that can bring together different leaders, communities, stakeholders, and interest groups to address wildfire risk beyond the community forest tenure areas – from neighbourhood to community to landscape level.

John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice