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Quesnel’s wildfire safety in need of workers

Money being provided to train wildfire mitigation personnel
Darren Stanislaus from the Cariboo Fire Centre walks next to the burn at Bond Lake just after ignition of a prescribed burn near Bond Lake in Williams Lake on Sept. 22, 2022.. Stanislaus is a fire keeper from Esk’et and has been working with BC Wildfire to bring cultural burning back to the land. (Ruth Lloyd photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

Preparing communities for potential wildfire is what the Forest Enhancement Society of BC (FESBC) does, and the City of Quesnel is one of their leading partners.

The work to mitigate the potential of fires in the forest interfacing with urban areas inevitably and necessarily means strategic harvesting in the bush around any municipality, which means careful and meaningful thought put to the uses of that wood and the ways it can be logged, maximizing value and safety.

The current challenge slowing the process is a lack of people to do the next wave of protective forestry work. But if there’s a municipality that has shown an ability to address the wildfire interface concern, with boots on the ground following an intelligent plan, it is Quesnel, said FESBC.

The provincial Ministry of Forests just announced a significant new investment in FESBC - $50-million dollars - which in turn has added money to Quesnel’s local efforts to reduce the risk of a wildfire damaging the city.

“The City of Quesnel has been a trailblazer in making forestry more sustainable by undertaking innovative projects with support from FESBC funding,” said an FESBC spokesperson, outlining why Quesnel is such an effective partner in changing how urban forests are dealt with, to improve wildfire conditions.

“After years of the mountain pine beetle devastating the forests surrounding the city, and the Plateau Fire Complex which consumed 545,150 hectares of forest, the City of Quesnel took the opportunity to learn from the crisis and formed the Forestry Initiatives Program (FIP) to advocate for the practice of sustainable forestry including proactive wildfire risk reduction,” said the FESBC in a written statement.

According to the group, more than 1,000 hectares of forest surrounding Quesnel has been assessed and reported on in the Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

Furthermore, 230 hectares has been actively treated with small machines and hand-work to reduce wildfire risk, plus another 200 hectares given what FESBC called “shelf-ready prescriptions.”

This work was carried out by the City of Quesnel, paid for in part by FESBC funding.

“The work put in by the City of Quesnel in wildfire mitigation has been extensive,” the FESBC spokesperson said. “The City thinks of wildfire mitigation in three buckets: private property, wildland urban interface, and the approach zone.

“On private property, it is important to teach citizens how to coexist with wildfire by hardening their homes and making them more defensible to wildfire through programs such as FireSmart.

“In the wildland-urban interface, or the area of transition between unoccupied land and human development, there are 34 areas as identified in the Community Wildfire Protection Plan for fuel reduction treatments.

“And finally, there is the approach (or landscape) zone where the focus is on working with project partners such as the Ministry of Forests, the forest industry, and others to scale up fuel management to a landscape-level scale.”

“The collaboration spearheaded by the City of Quesnel with organizations and local residents has been constructive to build relationships between various stakeholders and industry. The importance of this collaboration cannot be underestimated as fuel management projects are expensive and there are significant areas that require fuel reduction treatments,” said professional forester Roland Jarret, the City’s site supervisor for the Fuel Management Program.

Erin Robinson is the forestry initiatives manager for the City of Quesnel and agreed that the work is critical for the City’s safety, and learning lessons for the future about logging and other land treatment around the municipality.

“Due to the long-term support from FESBC, the City of Quesnel has carried out extensive fuel management since 2018,” Robinson said. “Through our wildfire protection efforts, we have been able to advance innovative and ecologically sensitive logging operations that protect our community, strengthen our economy, and help the ecosystems we live within, get back to health.”

So far, FESBC has invested about $1.7-million in the work to protect Quesnel, and another $500,000 was just announced.

“We look forward to continuing our efforts with FESBC in the years to come. By focusing on ecosystem restoration through innovative harvesting, enhanced fibre utilization, and creating meaningful employment in forestry through targeted local training,” Robinson said.

Training is the foundation of it all, said Quesnel’s former mayor Bob Simpson, a veteran of the forest industry, and currently a member of the Forestry Worker Supports and Community Resilience Council. According to him, the City has “not yet found someone to champion the training program,” and that a lack of investment in training is a challenge for communities throughout the province.

“You can talk about innovation, about making systemic changes, but to enable that to happen, you need to talk as early as you can about the human resource development aspect of any change – the available skilled labour force is small and will need to be grown and retooled through innovative training programs. For example, the necessary shift in forestry toward select harvesting with a lower environmental footprint while still extracting value will require us to have people trained almost to the level of a forestry tech running new, specialized equipment, as the equipment operators will have to decide, in the moment, which trees to cut, how, where, and when. But we don’t have this specialized workforce today. Everybody is talking about select harvesting with specialized equipment, but no one seems willing, as of yet, to build the necessary workforce.”

The new money from FESBC to the City of Quesnel, in partnership with FIP, is hoped will help ease some of that burden. There is a labour shortage in almost every sector of the Canadian economy, the local forest sector is no exception, so the machines needed to do the wildfire protection work don’t have operators, or even very many candidates to learn how to be operators. The aim now is to fill that gap with equipment operator training to then carry on the work of protecting the city with more fire-resistant surrounding forestland.