Prescribed burns renew Slocan Valley landscapes
Flames on a dry forest floor can be terrifying—except when the fire is well under control and being used for positive purposes. And that’s exactly what’s happening in the Slocan Valley, specifically on dry, south-facing slopes.
Historically, these areas benefited from natural wildfires. “But since we’ve introduced fire suppression in BC, they’ve become overgrown with competing species,” says Stephan Martineau, Manager of Slocan Integral Forestry Cooperative, which is implementing the project. “The idea is to reintroduce fire into these ecosystems to bring them back to more of their original features.”
The project is targeting over 870 hectares in the Winlaw Creek and Trozzo Creek watersheds. Started in 2020, it expects to finish in 2023.
Several prescribed burns have already taken place. “They worked well,” Martineau says. “They consumed a lot of the ground fuels; a lot of the pine needles that have accumulated for the last hundred years burned. It kind of resets the landscape to what it probably would have been like in the early 1900s.”
By reducing the numbers of new seedlings and recycling nutrients, these treatments improve tree health and resiliency to drought, disease and insects. They leave behind a vigorous forest ecosystem, which is open, rocky and dominated by shrubs, with a canopy of fire-tolerant trees like ponderosa pine, western larch and Douglas fir. As the climate becomes warmer and dryer, these areas will be more resilient.
Clearing out a lot of the undergrowth also transforms the currently dense landscape to the benefit of animals. Elk, deer, cougars, bobcats, bears…all “will find it easier to move through these areas,” Martineau says.
“It’s restoring a wildlife corridor that existed historically.”
Results like these make the project a great match for support from Columbia Basin Trust as it works to help groups in the region to maintain and improve ecological health of the Basin’s ecosystems.
The project also addresses the high demand from people in the Basin to stay safe from wildfires. In summer 2021, a wildfire did indeed come close to the project area. If it would have connected, “The fire would have met an already-burnt area and the intensity and rate of spread would have been dramatically reduced,” says Martineau. The section of the prescribed burn “creates a bit of a fuel-free zone and so acts as a wildfire deterrent.”
As a bonus, the project intends to have effects beyond its immediate location. Forestry students from Selkirk College and the University of British Columbia are studying the sites pre- and post-burn. “They’ll be able to give us some reports on how much of it burned and how fast the growth came back,” Martineau says. Lessons learned will be “used around the province. This project becomes part of a database that we need to support this kind of work. I think that’s amazing.”