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Concerns rising over forest fires and climate change

Last Updated Jul 8, 2015 at 9:46 am PST

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Hotter, drier and for longer.

Some of BC’s top forestry experts say climate change is intensifying our wildfire seasons, and there are concerns about drought, fire and the health of our forests.

“We are seeing something that is going to become much more frequent in the future,” says John Innes, Dean of Forestry at the University of British Columbia. “We are seeing records broken every day and it’s something we haven’t experienced before.”

Innes points out BC is used to fighting wildfires, our crews are among the best in the world at it.

“But the question is whether or not we have the capacity to deal with the level of fires we are now experiencing and whether we can continue to do that throughout the fire season if this weather continues,” he tells NEWS 1130.

Last year in BC, 370,000 hectares of forest were consumed by wildfires, one of the highest totals on record, and Innes says 215,000 hectares have burned so far this year.

While intense wildfires are one of the most immediately visible signs of drought, climate change is also having an impact on the health of our forests, according to Associate Professor Lori Daniels┬áin UBC’s Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences.

“It’s important to remember climates have varied over decades and centuries and that variation is part of our ecosystems that our trees are highly adapted to. I think the catch is that we are beginning to see shifts in the degree of droughts — how severe they are — so that they are pushing toward the most extreme we have see in recent centuries.”

In BC, some species of trees can live for up to a thousand years and old growth forests have survived many changes in climate, but Daniels says the recent extremes are exceeding what has happened in the past.

“The trees are unable to recover as quickly and we have greater mortality as a result. We are beginning to measure greater rates of death in our forests, even in protected old growth forest where we thought they’d be the most resistant and resilient to climate change.”

Ultimately, BC’s forests will adapt, but it could mean changes to our landscape.

“One adaptation is that they burn and then regenerate with something that is less susceptible to burning in the future,” adds Innes.

“That’s probably not the sort of adaptation we’d like to see but we can actually take action to reduce the susceptibility of forests to insect attack or to fire. We can plant different species, we can plant different mixes, we can make the landscape more fire smart by having a mosaic of different ages of stands that would make it more difficult for fires to spread rapidly over large areas.”

While the province has made changes to its wildfire management policies in recent years, Innes and Daniels both feel there’s along way to go in improving how BC deals with its forests.