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 July 04, 2018
'It's just devastating': Searching for tree-eating bugs and other signs of life in B.C.'s charred forests

 The axe bites into the fire-blackened bark of a Douglas fir with a solid thunk.

Lori Daniels is cutting into the tree hunting for a tiny bug called the Douglas fir bark beetle that lives in the moist layer beneath the thick bark of dying trees.

"You've got nice pink inner bark, so that's what beetles are looking for," the University of British Columbia forestry professor says as she looks for the telltale channels the bugs carve as they eat and mate.

All around her in a forest near Williams Lake in south central B.C. the exterior of the trees are a sooty black. For beetles, the fire-scarred trees are both a huge banquet and a breeding ground.

The devastation is part of the more than 12,000 square kilometres of forests that burned during last year's record-setting fire season in the province. That's an area twice the size of Prince Edward Island. More than 60,000 people were forced to flee their homes, and it cost a budget-busting $568 million just to fight the fires.

Daniels's work is part of an effort by government and universities to understand the impact of the destruction and figure out what can be done to help forests recover.

An independent review of the wildfires prepared for the B.C. government suggests climate change is leading to "a new normal" where extreme fires will be much more frequent. Four of the province's most destructive fire seasons have occurred in the past eight years.

Researchers across the country say there's an urgency to learn how our forests are adapting to climate change, and how it will impact both communities surrounded by forests, and the people who depend on healthy woodlands for their livelihoods.

Fears of a beetle population bomb

Daniels is very worried about the bark beetles because conditions are ideal for a population explosion, she says.

"It was impacting our Douglas fir forests before the fires, so now we take a population of beetles that was already quite large, add prime habitat, with weather conditions if they're right this summer, it could be a very large epidemic --- an outbreak."

She says the bugs could infest healthy forests nearby and spread across the province in the years to come. Her research crews are trapping and counting the bugs to find out how far and how quickly they can be expected to spread because of the new abundance of prime habitat.

The loss of even more timber to bugs would be a big problem in B.C., where forestry is a crucial part of the economy. The forests are also home to a wide range of other plants and animals such as mule deer, which are already struggling.​

Unusually hot fires

In this part of the forest, there is very little life left.

"If you look around us, the fire was burning really hot," Daniels says.

She pulls out a knife and scrapes into the charred earth, sending up puffs of ash.

"It's burned down to just black and white ash," she says. "There's very little organic material left behind here."

That's a problem, she says, because in the past, most fires didn't burn so deep down into the ground; they left behind seeds and roots that helped the forests recover.

Many of the Douglas firs she's examined in the region show signs of having survived multiple fires thanks to their thick bark. But due to the scorching heat of the massive fire that burned in this section of forest last summer, recovery will take longer and invasive species may take hold.

"A big part of what will be important to document over the next few years is how many trees are growing back in areas like this, where it's burned at very high intensity."

Logging a scorched forest

In the hills above Williams Lake, a large machine called a feller buncher tears through the forest.

The machine grabs tall trees with a giant metal claw, cuts them with a huge blade and tosses them into piles alongside the road. This forest is mostly dead as well, also killed by one of last year's fires.

The logging operation is an attempt to salvage what they can, but it's a race against time.

"It's dusty. It's dirty. Everyone goes home at night, you're [covered in] black," says logging manager Pat Ferguson, standing in the middle of a clearcut that goes from horizon to horizon. Clouds of fine ash swirl in the wind.

Alongside the logging roads that snake through the hills are large stacks of logs, their outside charred but the lumber inside still useful.

The race to cut trees

They have to harvest quickly. As these trees die and dry out they become worthless. He says in normal circumstances the area would have been logged in small sections, providing employment for decades.

"It's just devastating, this would have been a long-term job, but now it's turning into a year and it all will be gone."

The logging operation is controlled by the Williams Lake Indian Band.

Coun. Willie Sellars says the value of the timber will be lost within a one- to three-year window.

"It's forcing us to clear cut, to log it all, and think about the impacts afterwards."

Sellars also worries about the loss of habitat for deer and moose, as well as the impact on important plants.

"There's also traditional medicines, traditional berries we would harvest on an annual [basis]. Now we're not going to be able to do that."

Near the Williams Lake airport, forester Ken Day walks through another fire-damaged forest. Last year he helped fight the fires as manager of the 10,000-hectare Alex Fraser research forest, run by UBC. Some of the university's long-term research projects were damaged by the out-of-control blazes.

Walking in the woods, he points out a clear line in the forest. On one side, it's obvious the fire that swept through was very hot because the land is black and lifeless. On the other side, there is much more greenery because dead trees, debris and other fuel were removed before the area caught fire.

"This is the edge of the thinning treatment that we carried out. On this side, it has been thinned, and although it burned, it burned at a much lower intensity than that side, where there hadn't been any thinning."

He says the choice is clear: Pay now to protect communities by removing fuel, or pay much more during catastrophic fire seasons.

"We just need to get on with the job in a more concerted effort."