Fires and Floods: Future-proofing forestry against climate catastrophes

Looking out towards the tall trees visible from the UBC Forestry offices, Lori Daniels reflects on the environmental firestorm that her children, she and other people from her generation could face.

“We are experiencing the effects of climate change that I used to think would mostly land on the shoulders of future generations; but, all indicators show it will have severe impacts even within the lifetime of Baby Boomers,” says the UBC Forestry professor.

The past five years saw BC’s worst wildfire seasons to date in 2017, 2018 and 2021. The most recent came with the record-breaking heat dome that scorched the landscape, hollowing out rivers and streams and baking forests tinder dry. Over 850,000 hectares burned, prompting a state of emergency in BC from July 21 to Sept. 14, 2021, that resulted in widespread evacuations and property loss.

Just as the fires settled, the atmospheric rivers of mid-Nov. to early Dec. 2021 flooded hundreds of homes and businesses across Southern BC, and triggered mudslides, rockslides and pounding high water that washed out stretches of highway, railroads and bridges.

While businesses and homes can rebuild – often at a significant cost – and many damaged forests and wildlife habitats will recover, a shifting climate is leaving its mark.

“We know that forests are resilient to a fairly wide range of environmental variation,” says Lori, who studies the effects of fire on forest ecosystem health. “Many of our tree species are adapted to diverse weather and climate-related disturbances like fire, wind and insect outbreaks. But historical and evolutionary boundaries are being pushed.”

“Individual plants and trees are stressed to their physiological limits as the cascading effects of climate change – such as the prolonged heat dome that drove extreme wildfires – led to the decline and death of large swaths of forests.”

A Feb. 28, 2022 release by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change entitled “Climate Change: A Threat to Human Wellbeing and Health of the Planet” projected that the earth’s average temperature will increase by about 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades. The leading international body for climate change-related research and knowledge-sharing points a finger squarely at human activity for the increasing number of heatwaves, droughts and floods, as well as mass species mortality.

Forest regeneration failures are already happening in the American West following extreme weather events, notes Lori. “Some forests are not regenerating after the fire, and are instead becoming shrublands and grasslands.

There are signs that the same is happening in BC’s warmest and driest ecosystems – the ponderosa pine and interior Douglas-fir zones – which may leave some places in BC with less forest in the future.”

Widespread impacts

Wildfire affects us all in some way. Smoke from fires can travel high into the stratosphere and be carried on winds over thousands of kilometres. A mix of fine particulate matter and gasses, blazes that sometimes rip through or beside communities can contain volatile organic compounds, such as the carcinogen formaldehyde, according to a BC Centre for Disease Control fact sheet on the health effects of wildfire smoke.

Fuels consumed by fire, such as wood, can also release carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, all of which are heat-trapping greenhouse gasses that are responsible for stoking heat waves and deleterious climatic events.

Despite wildfire’s reach, rural and Indigenous communities often bear more of the burden of wildfire than urban settings. The devastating 2017 Elephant Hill wildfire burned over 192,000 hectares throughout BC’s southern interior, destroying homes in the Boston Flats and Pressy Lake area and directly impacting the traditional territories of eight Secwépemc Nation communities.

Flooded farmland in Abbotsford, BC, Nov 2021
Flooded farmland in Abbotsford, BC, Nov. 2021.

“Indigenous peoples globally are on the front lines of climate change and other human-caused environmental impacts,” states Sarah Dickson-Hoyle, a PhD candidate and Public Scholar with UBC Forestry. “They have experienced significant impacts from deforestation, resource extraction, fire suppression, mega-fires burning their territories, along with changes to sensitive watersheds, salmon and wildlife populations.”

Her report “Elephant Hill: Secwépemc Leadership and Lessons Learned from the Collective Story of Wildfire Recovery,” co-led with Char John of the Secwepemcúl’ecw Restoration and Stewardship Society, calls for supporting Indigenous leadership and decision-making in fire and forest stewardship. It also lays out a framework for engaging Indigenous communities in wildfire management, including recovery, moving forwards.

“Indigenous communities have the rights, skills and expertise to be involved in all aspects of wildfire management on their territories, whether that is involvement in fire response, planning to mitigate fires or working on the land and community recovery plan following a wildfire, says Sarah.”

The report also recommends a move toward joint decision-making and partnerships between national and provincial government agencies and First Nations, along with funding to support Indigenous communities with implementing wildfire recovery, rehabilitation and management practices.

Putting wildfire management in the hands of affected communities is also central to the community forest approach. In their 2020 study, “BC Community Forest Perspectives and Engagement in Wildfire Management,” Sarah, Lori and their co-authors*, found that many communities are redoubling their efforts to establish proactive wildfire management plans to mitigate against future catastrophes.

“Community forests have emerged as leaders by employing innovative solutions to address wildfire risk and protect their communities and the forests on which they depend,” the report states. “For many community forests, the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons catalyzed their focus on proactive wildfire management, and galvanized community support for these efforts.”

A cascading effect

Elephant Hill wildfire viewed from the air, July 2017.
Elephant Hill wildfire viewed from the air, July 2017.
Photo courtesy of Paul Simakoff-Ellims.

Forests and the forestry profession have an important role to play to stem the tide of climate change. From carbon sequestration in soils and trees to cooling communities with urban canopies, implementing selective logging practices and connecting the dots between forest vegetation and salmon survival rates, the diverse pursuits within the profession are part of the global vision for a sustainable future.

For example, UBC Forestry Prof. Younes Alila’s research has put into motion a paradigm shift that could alter forest harvesting practices in flood-prone areas. He found that a previously widely accepted approach to determining whether stand harvest – ing was influencing flood likelihood doesn’t hold water.

The chronological pairing (CP) method does not track floods in an area over time, but instead would evaluate the difference in the severity of floods between non-clear-cut and clear-cut areas during a storm event or snowmelt season, one event at a time, Younes says. On the other hand, frequency pairing (FP) tracks simultaneously the number and severity of floods in clear-cut and non-clear-cut areas over long periods of time to determine whether floods are becoming more severe and/or frequent in one or the other.

In his investigations, Younes also found that clear-cutting is indeed likely contributing to an increase in the frequency and severity of floods. Treed areas shade the ground, slowing snowpack melt when temperatures increase, he explains. Without treetops and root systems to absorb rain and slow snowmelt, cleared areas can act as water basins. On mountainsides, runoff has nowhere to go but down, spilling into and sometimes overwhelming low-lying areas.

“Current research has found cases of 100-year floods becoming 25 times more frequent in watersheds of very flat topographies.”

The floods affecting the Fraser Valley may be a case in point. Its history of flooding includes a significant flood in 1894 and a major flood in 1948 when the Fraser River broke its banks, destroying dikes and 2,300 homes. Largely attributed to snow-melt, the damage from the flood in ’48 cost around $20 million, or what would be around $215 million today. By comparison, the price tag to repair the damage from the Nov. 2021 flooding across BC is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. 

Current Wildfires 

Fire suppression and forest management policies have resulted in denser, more homogenous forests in western North America. Landscapes have become stocked with fuel, ready to burn. Layered on top of these volatile forest conditions is climate change, which has further dried out fuels, increased lightning ignitions and created dangerous fire weather conditions.

1. Fuel loading

Fire suppression on broad scales has led to the accumulation of fuel in increasingly volatile configurations in western North America’s forests. Surface and ladder fuels have accumulated, elevating the risk of severe, stand-replacing fires.

2. Densification and infilling

Fire suppression also homogenized the patchwork that sustained historical fire regimes. In place of a mosaic of forest and non-forest, fire suppression increased the cover and density of largely coniferous forests.

3. Forestry practices

Settler forest management practices contributed to more homogenous, even-aged, conifer-dominated landscapes, which can quickly carry and spread the fire.

4. Fire behaviour

The combination of climate change, fire suppression and forest management decisions has increased the risk of large, severe wildfires and extreme fire weather, leading to an increase in burned areas and behaviours, such as spotting.

PICS’ Wildfire & Carbon Project Wildfire graphic
These graphics form part of the PICS’ Wildfire & Carbon Project led by academic and government forestry scientists and experts in Canada and the US, including faculty and researchers at UBC Forestry. The project is investigating sustainable forestry and wildfire management strategies that minimize the impacts of climate change and support BC’s bioeconomy through such things as enhanced carbon sinks, economic opportunities for forest fibre and reduced wildfire emissions.


In the face of increasingly severe climate impacts, strategic interventions through forest management can reduce wildfire emissions and risk, increase forest carbon sinks and enhance BC’s bioeconomy.

1. Prescribed burning

To reduce the risk of severe wildfire, intentional burning during shoulder seasons and moderate fire weather can reduce fuel loads and mimic the historical role of fire on landscapes.

2. Forest thinning

By decreasing fuel loads and forest connectivity, forest thinning can reduce wildfire risk. Strategically using biomass after it leaves the forest can create bioeconomic opportunities and keep carbon out of the atmosphere.

3. Enhance deciduous species

Replanting and encouraging the growth of deciduous species can enhance biodiversity and reduce wildfire risk. Increasing the use of timber from deciduous species can create further bioeconomic opportunities.

4. Post-fire salvage

Strategic removal of fire-killed trees following a burn can reduce future wildfire risk, redirect timber harvest from live stands to those already killed by fire and help minimize forest carbon loss to the atmosphere.

5. Bioeconomy facilities

Strategically placed facilities throughout the forested landscape can support innovative uses of biomass and harvest residues. 

PICS’ Wildfire & Carbon Project Flood graphic
Images courtesy of the PICS’ Wildfire & Carbon Project. Graphic design by Dale Kilian.

New approaches and technology 

While there is no one answer to prevent flooding, Younes champions selective logging over clear-cutting. This, he says, can mitigate against catastrophic floods and prevent damage to watersheds, fish habitats and the livelihoods of the people who rely on forest resources for subsistence hunting and foraging, as well as businesses, products and employment.

The time to start making the shift is now, he adds, as once trees have been removed, the road to recovery is long. “In the first 20 years after replanting a forest in the interior dry snow environment, there is no more than a 20% recovery of its hydrologic capacity,” Younes explains. “It can take 60 to 80 years before its full hydrologic function – ability to absorb rainfall and runoff, and slow snowmelt – can be reached.”

Implementing new evidence-based forest management practices is in the works, but will require more investment in the technology and research needed to get us there, says UBC Forestry Assoc. Prof. Dominik Roeser.

“The only way forward is to come together and develop new, innovative science-based solutions,” he says. “Business-as-usual is not working anymore, as we see with the increasing severity of wildfires and floods, along with protests over logging.”

Change needs to happen at different scales, whether at the block, landscape or provincial levels. The Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS), for example, which launched in 2008, is bridging research, industry, government, First Nations and non-profit stakeholders to find solutions to the global climate crisis.

Lori and Dominik are both part of the PICS Wildfire and Carbon project, which aims to use science-based data to inform forest management strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires, enhance forest carbon sinks and assess bioeconomic opportunities for forest fibre. Results could be incorporated into tools, such as TimberOps, a virtual reality platform that enables forest managers to visualize and plan complex forest management scenarios based on multiple data inputs that help with identifying a smart path forward, says Dominik.

“We are working on solutions to show where different disturbances have taken place and how they adversely affect other landscape values, such as wildlife, First Nations cultural sites, streams and fish habitats.”

Visualization tools can help forecast how fire and active management could impact landscapes five, 10 and 15 years down the road, Dominik adds. Researchers can then inform decision-making on, for example, when to allow fires to burn to remove the buildup of fuels in fire-suppressed areas.

“TimberOps allows us to zoom in and out of different geographic locations and forest management scenarios,” he says. “Together with our partners, LlamaZOO and FPInnovations, we’re also laying the groundwork for a forest visualization lab at UBC to develop the knowledge base within this arena.”

At the block level, selective logging practices, such as thinning and partial cuts, are gaining traction, but the tools and know-how to make them happen on a broader scale in BC need to be amassed, notes Dominik.

“We need the latest technology combined with suitable layout approaches and operator training; and, we need to start preparing students to address the challenges coming up in the sector,” he says.

For example, commercial thinning, as well as fuel treatment practices, could benefit from the adoption of single-grip harvesters and forwarders that use an operator-controlled arm to grip and extract individual trees without undue damage to nearby trees, and forest soil and habitats. However, this technology is expensive, and its competitive edge is based on optimal deployment through tailored harvesting methods and the up to two years it takes in other jurisdictions to establish well-trained operators. To address this, Dominik’s Forest Action Hub has invested in a simulator to address these research and training gaps.

“We need bold action moving forward to really make a difference,” he says. “When it comes to silvicultural practices, we need to try new things. Thinning, partial cuts or harvesting certain areas more intensively than others, it all comes down to developing the forestry profession of the future using the best available tools.”


Led by our very own Development and Alumni Engagement Office, and shaped by valuable feedback from our alumni community, the Spring 2022 issue of Branchlines showcases the dynamic and multifaceted fields of forestry. 

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