A close friend of mine in Vancouver emailed me recently. He sent a photo out the picture window of his house – a window that under normal circumstances has a beautiful view of a well-treed backyard and the Pacific Ocean.
The Pacific was there for sure, but the outline of the nearest shoreline was blurred by the haze that only choking smoke can give you. So much for the view of the ocean – he might as well have lived in downtown Tokyo. Knowing that I love trees, that I lead an organization that loves trees, and that we are responsible for the planting of over 82 million trees since 1992, he sent me this short message, “Michael. Pleeeeeease. No more trees!”.
Well Les, I am here to tell you that blaming the trees for the recent wildfires in British Columbia is a bit like blaming the formation of icebergs for the sinking of the Titanic.
We seemed to have set ourselves up for this massive ecological failure – yet another example of how we must work together (and now!) to look at positive solutions to climate change. That inaction, or postponing action, is much too grim to think about.
The largest, most tangible, Canadian example of climate change was probably the outbreak of the notorious mountain pine beetle. A native insect that attacks lodgepole pine, it became a major problem in central British Columbia in the early 1990’s. The reason? Well, amongst others, the lack of cold temperatures in winter. Mountain pine beetle larvae are normally killed by -40°C temperatures, a once-normal occurrence in those forests. Unfortunately, as the average winter temperature continued to climb, those -40°C days became fewer and fewer… Easier to heat your house in Prince George or Vernon, but also helping the survival of mountain pine beetles, which in turn led to an awful lot of dead forests. So, while the foresters did their best to use the wood, the sheer size of the infestation meant that there was (and is) a huge amount of dead, dry wood sitting on the ground – some 18 million hectares (or 32 PEI’s!!). The infestation then expanded into northeast British Columbia (e.g. Fort St. John) and into Alberta (e.g. Grande Prairie and Slave Lake which had its own wildfire in 2011). The beetle is now in the Boreal forest, feeding on jack pine and making its way (for the first time in history) into the North-West Territories!
And as the climate continued to feature warmer winters and hotter summers, similar problems were seen in other trees as well. Douglas-fir for example, a beautiful conifer found within the interior of B.C. was succumbing to Douglas-fir beetle, another native beetle that attacks Douglas-fir trees, particularly ones that were stressed by… guess what – drought. This equalled another 50,000 ha of B.C. forest… And so, it goes.
Add to this tinderbox dry lightning ignited fires and you have a very bad scenario: Fort McMurray, Alberta 2016 (1.4 million hectares burnt including the evacuation of a City of 80,000), interior B.C. 2017 (1.2 million hectares burnt) and now B.C. again in 2018 where hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest are still burning.
And as people try and recover from these fires, here we are trying to offer them the one piece of Canada that many of them told us provides a return to “normalcy” to their lives – a tree. We sought the help of our sponsors and donors during Operation ReLeaf BC Fires in 2004 in the Kelowna area, and again there in 2007. Tree Canada has been working with the Government of Alberta since 2010 to help homeowners and small landowners replace trees (many with less-fire-prone ones like poplar) through Operation ReLeaf Alberta Mountain Pine Beetle. We are proud of the thousands of trees we have already planted (again, according to FireSmart Canada standards) under Operation ReLeaf Fort McMurray and with help from individuals and companies, planted trees under Operation ReLeaf BC Fires (ironically we are still raising funds to help hundreds of landowners and residents affected in 2017)… We now look at what is happening this year with a shake of our heads knowing that we will be approaching those who support us and go into action once more…
Is it all worth it? Should we continue to talk about restoring people’s lives by planting… gulp… more trees? Well Les, as I look at the pre-2018 photos of your backyard with its western redcedar, western hemlock and Douglas-fir, I try to manage what it all would have looked like without trees. I think of the polluted, smoggy air in your neighbourhood without the trees to filter it, of the rivers, streams and ocean without the trees to minimize the sediment, and of your own inability to come home after a stressful day at the office and relax in the comfort of your own, arboreal paradise. So, don’t blame the trees Les… They didn’t ignite themselves on fire… Continue to work with us to fight the nefarious effects of climate change… and yes, “More Trees Please!”.
Michael Rosen, R.P.F., President, Tree Canada