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B.C. landscapes may never recover from wildfire damage, ecologists say

The Okanagan’s hills are unrecognizable in the wake of the devastating wildfires in the region.

The scorched hectares are now visible in places like Kelowna as the smoke clears, and tall trees that once filled the landscape are gone and replaced with ash.

Wildland fire ecologist Robert Gray has been assessing the wildfire damage in the province and believes the trees that once stood tall in some areas may never return.

"Trees established there a century ago under slightly different climate, and it's only going to get drier, so we wouldn't expect trees to establish there very well," said Gray.

"If they do, they're not going to grow very fast and it's likely going to be a lot of shrubs, grasses and herbs on that landscape and not a lot of trees."

Gray says the scorched land can germinate low plants, and he expects there will be an abundance in the future that will dominate the landscape.

He explained that the current landscape in parts of the province, especially in the Kelowna area, is shifting but without control— forcing officials to be in response mode.

"Having small patches of high-severity fires is great. It's actually quite beneficial for (bio)diversity, but we want to be more in the driver's seat," said Gray.

The wildfires burning in B.C. this year have torn through a record two million hectares, according to recent estimates.

Burned trees are seen on hills in the Okanagan post-wildfire. The fires have threatened the homes of thousands of people and the local wildfire that shares them.

Adam Ford, a biology professor at University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, has been tracking dozens of wildlife throughout the summer and has witnessed their movements as the wildfires encroached on their habitats.

"Some of these fires can burn really hot, and they can burn right through mineral soil, in which case it'll be a long time before vegetation comes back," said Ford.

"But typically, when we think of fires not being a bad thing, it's because it clears out some shrubs. It opens up sight lines, it brings back a flush of nutrients to the understory plants."

Ford explained that mule deer are an example of a species that can thrive post-wildfires, and they've been observed returning to their homes hours after fires have ripped through.

Where the issue lies is if they can't avoid rapidly expanding blazes and are killed as a result.

Forester and UBC Ph.D. student Ira Sutherland has been studying wildfires in the province for many years and has devoted the past two and a half to dissecting B.C.'s forest management history.

His research dives into the systemic historical dynamics that are preventing land management institutions in B.C. from adapting or transforming as needed to tackle emerging environmental challenges such as increasing wildfires.

The study explains how forest management institutions have successfully adapted in the past, but long after the problem was recognized.

"It's like when you get in a dark alley, what you do is you put your head down and keep walking, but now we've lifted our head up and are looking for solutions," said Sutherland.

Sutherland outlines three recommendations: managing forests more locally, restoring complex landscapes and using reflective processes to help transform institutions to meet emerging landscape challenges. Top Stories


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