Forests, Fires, and Our Future: Dr Ruth Waldick speaks on climate resilience

Since late 2021, a small group of Cortes residents has met regularly to discuss climate change and its impacts on our region. On February 4th, 2023, the “WTF Friday” event featured environmental scientist Ruth Waldick; Dr Waldick gave a presentation on climate change, fire risk, and forestry practise.

We may have no control over the weather, but we do have some control over soil moisture, fuel loads and ignition risk. 

— Ruth Waldick, Transition Salt Spring

Her presentation covered two main themes: the increase in fire risk created by traditional logging practises in BC, and methods of forest restoration — accessible to private landowners as well as crown land managers — that can reduce the risk of dangerous wildfires in our area.

The CKTZ 89.5 FM Radio Broadcast, image is Cusheon Lake, Salt Spring Island, By Michal Klajban (Own Work) via Wikimedia Commons (CC SA, 4.0 LIcense)
Original presentation with names of Salt Spring residents deleted. Image is Cusheon Lake, Salt Spring Island, Wikimedia Commons

Dr Waldick brings her expertise in weather risk assessment and ecosystem analysis to Transition Salt Spring (TSS), a local chapter of the Transition movement. Among their many projects is the reduction of wildfire risk on Salt Spring Island — a concern that most rural BC residents share.

In her address to the WTF group on Cortes, Dr Waldick discussed forests and forestry, fire risk, common misconceptions, and paths towards better practise. She is part of a TSS project to maintain and monitor a “test forest,” trying out different methods of remediation and restorative silviculture; she discusses their methodology and what they hope to discover or achieve.

Here are some excerpts (edited for readability) from her presentation. The complete presentation is available (at end of article) as a separate podcast.

Ruth Waldick:

I’m working on the board of Transition Salt Spring, on the issue of climate adaptation; we developed a climate action plan, for which I did a risk assessment and impact assessment.

What came out on top, for us, were issues like drought and fire. And so what I’m working on now with the organization is looking at techniques that can reduce the vulnerability of our community living in a forested area –building resilience in the natural environment and the community, to things like water shortages, drought, heat events, fire, extreme weather, et cetera.

And a lot of the analysis came down to the simple fact that we need to undo some of the harm that bad management has created — some of the the vulnerabilities for the community. So my focus really, as a scientist, is setting up experiments and trials to look at strategies to to build resilience and reduce areas where we know we’re vulnerable.

My lens is very much on the shifts in weather systems — not just the extreme events, but the overall shifts that will be affecting our systems. Like heat, changes in precipitation, timing, et cetera.

We developed a really good relationship with Salt Spring Fire & Rescue Services, because they’re really concerned about fire — as are you on Cortes, and really all the communities in the Salish Sea, the whole CDF [Coastal Douglas Fir] Zone, including eastern Vancouver island.

We’re all in the same boat. We have extremely high wildfire/urban interface and we have different forest systems than typically are spoken about by fire & rescue services, or even more importantly, by the Province.

The Province has developed Fire Smart guidelines that are really for infrastructure protection. They’re not at all about forests. And people have been sort of adopting those, and thinking that they can translate those into the broader systems. But there are reasons why that’s not good. And our Fire Chief and our Assistant Fire Chief understand that.

And so we’ve been working with them to make sure that we can align the conversation — so that people don’t see a conflict between the guidance for protecting your home and infrastructure from potential fire, and what we’re talking about. And we’re talking about how to reduce the potential for catastrophic fire in the forests on the island and around your home, without undermining the forest systems themselves or affecting surface flows or water recharge or et cetera, et cetera.

So what they [Salt Spring Fire & Rescue] told us at that time, was Get me the science — because currently they are relying on the science that comes from UBC Forestry and the Ministry of Forestry, which is pretty much entirely arriving from the interior forests where the large scale commercial forestry operations are going on, which, as you well know, is not appropriate for our area.

[…] So we are working on a watershed on Salt Spring Island that supplies a significant amount of potable water to the community. Almost the entire upper watershed is protected, so it’s kind of a perfect spot for experimentation. The land is owned by the Waterworks District and they’ve given us permission to set this up as, basically, an experimental lake — for long-term experimental treatments and monitoring, so that we can actually try to quantify and give defensible evidence for the importance of retaining natural understory, the importance of thinning trees to create fire breaks in a particular way that will enhance moisture and biological diversity and complexity, et cetera.

All over the island, the close canopy is preventing the understory from thriving. And it’s reducing the growth of the trees that are present and creating a high amount of stress in these systems, where we are now approaching — after 60 or 70 years of this dense region — a period of natural thinning. So the amount of fuels being input, through blowdown and the natural thinning process, in these vast areas of what were clear cut and, and post burn regions — it’s now creating huge areas of vulnerability for catastrophic fire.

[…] There’s a perception on Vancouver Island and even in the Gulf Islands, that this level of extreme catastrophic fire that we’re seeing on the mainland is coming for us, and it actually isn’t. And certainly what we’re seeing here on the Southern Gulf Islands is that some people are just taking down trees on their properties, because they’re concerned.

And one of the things that I want to point out at this workshop — to everybody — is that we’re not the same. This is a rural landscape, with a very high proportion of the forested land in private ownership. So that means that the government actually has no role in advising or managing the risk on those areas, which is why we need to start to develop our own resources and information and sharing it as much as possible. Because there are no [officially recommended] methods or techniques for private landowners to safely manage their own forests, without just cutting them down.

So that’s part of the objective, is to make it clear that our area is different from this perspective. So just to start with, we want to talk to the practitioners about the realities of managing forests. Of managing for various values, not just the timber value for the milled wood.

There’s a new role in for the 21st century for arborists, fallers, foresters — to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire for communities. So imagine private land owners starting to bring in professionals to enhance the ecological integrity of the forests on their property, in a way that increases the retention of the downed wood and carbon inputs into the forest floor. Which then promotes increased moisture retention.

We then get more of the native understory recovering, which is fire resistant — so that we’re actually creating light, we let some of the trees mature and grow, to achieve some kind of old growth state and thicker bark, which could then start to generate revenue from tree thin…

Dr Waldick believes that regenerative forestry practises — a new kind of forestry for BC — can increase water retention and reduce combustible debris in forested areas, thus protecting communities from wildfire risk, while still permitting selective logging of higher-value trees.

Something that’s really needed is to create a community of practice among the people who are already managing forests, so community forest owners, people who are familiar with this, also groups like the Galiano Conservancy who are active forest managers themselves, and land trusts. There’s interest across the board with organizations that that own or are responsible for managing these areas. So I am organizing a workshop on February 27th — a first conversation about the issue of fire in the Coastal Douglas Fir bio-climatic zone.

–Ruth Waldick, WTF talk

Interested readers are encouraged to listen to the full-length podcast, which contains the entire content of Dr Waldick’s presentation.

See also:

Maxwell Creek Field Notes, Part 1
Maxwell Creek Field Notes, Part 2
Maxwell Creek Field Notes, Part 3

Feature image: Wildfire Smoke As seen from Rebecca Spit – Photo by B.W. Jinks (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA, 4.0 License)