Fuel management to reduce wildfire risks has been the focus of a collaborative project on Fox Mountain in Williams Lake.
“The whole idea is to open up the canopy to reduce the flammable fuels,” said Gord Chipman, registered professional forester and forest manager for Alkali Resources Management (ARM), one of the companies working on the project.
Chipman said the intent is to get rid of the fine fuels.
“We want to get down to about 10 tons per hectare,” he explained, noting the area crews have been working in had about 50 tons per hectare of biomass or flammable material when they began.
The area crews have targeted is Crown land and part of Woodlot 1694, where there are also non-motorized bike trails managed by the Williams Lake Cycling Club.
Marty Lauren, who manages the woodlot for his family, said the tenure is in a unique setting.
“Located on Fox Mountain, we interface with the City of Williams Lake to the south, Pine Valley to the north, the Bird Street, Ross Road, and Kemp subdivisions on Fox Mountain. Many non-motorized trails are part of the area.”
Lauren has always considered the interface areas as a fire risk and said the fuel management work completed has minimized that risk.
“The funding from Forest Enhancement Society, along with the commercial harvest component, has allowed us to complete a very comprehensive fuel management prescription that we would otherwise not have the ability to do.”
Alkali Resource Management (ARM) from Esk’et won the tender to do the hand work.
For several weeks, crews have cut with power saws, pruned trees by cutting the branches up to three metres high and placing woody debris in small piles.
The piles are then picked up by a forwarder, operated by Peter Nilsson of Nilsson Select Harvesting, and placed into larger heaps where Jared Sales of Celtic Eldorado Construction will grind the material for use as biomass at Atlantic Power Corp. in Williams Lake.
Foreman and site supervisor James Paul said it’s been an opportunity for ARM to train and teach many Esk’et community members who have been hired for the project.
“It’s such a good thing,” Paul said. “My colleague Doug Johnson worked for the Cariboo Fire Centre and has been doing this type of work for about 25 years. A lot of us fight fires in the summer.”
Working in an area where there are recreational sites, such as mountain biking trails, is new for them, he added.
“With all the rules in place we are learning. We’re so used to just cutting trees and knocking them down.”
Crews have also adjusted to COVID-19 precautions, which has meant using more vehicles to bring workers to town from Esk’et, so physical distancing can be maintained, Paul said.
Francis Johnson, a forester and strategic planner with ARM, said they are working on three different fuel management projects.
“The biggest thing that allows us to do the work is that we have a very capable work force,” Johnson said. “With the Fox Mountain project we’ve had 35 people from our community doing the work — from spacing, to the chainsaw work and piling.”
It has been a good employment opportunity and about 10 of the workers are under the age of 25, he added.
“Our youngest person on site just turned 16 so we are investing in our youth, getting them off the video games and into the work force. That’s one of the things we take pride in — to build capacity.”
Seeing his own community members not living in poverty, but living comfortably and having work is very rewarding, Johnson added.
Cariboo Woodlot Association project co-ordinator Mike Simpson said a total of $500,000 is being expended on fuel management projects on Fox Mountain and at Frost Creek. To the best of his knowledge in woodlot licences across B.C. these are some of the first projects where fuel management is happening.
“We cannot apply funding to private lands,” Simpson explained, noting the association received the funding from the Forest Enhancement Society of B.C.
Forest Enhancement BC works with PricewaterhouseCoopers — the middleman managing the money, he added.
Dave Conly, operations manager with Forest Enhancement Society of B.C., described the project as ‘pretty cool.’
“It’s complex and it has interface area right in the midst of people’s houses. It takes a lot of interaction and community support to make it successful.”
An ‘extraordinary’ amount of co-ordination has gone into the project to manage many interests, Conly said, adding he is impressed by the number of professional biologists and foresters that are involved.
“This project meets our purposes and ticked our boxes very well.”
FESBC started funding fuel management programs in the Cariboo in 2016.
There are 123 active projects in B.C. for a total of $58.5 million and about half of that work has been finished or is underway.
In the Cariboo, there are 38 projects for a total of $34.8 million. About a third of them are completed.
The aftermath of the 2017 wildfires brought into focus the high levels of forest fuel buildup around Williams Lake, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations noted in an e-mail response.
Areas such as the one underway on Fox Mountain were selected as a priority to have done due to overlap of many different values.
“This area and others have been a concern of the ministry because if a fire were to impact the site it could have severe consequences,” the spokesperson stated.
Other priority areas that have been identified through the Williams Lake and area Community Wildfire Protection Plan include South Lakeside, Dog Creek Road, Soda Creek Road and Wildwood.
There are many areas in Williams Lake and across B.C. with unnatural levels of fuel buildup that wouldn’t have happened historically.
“This high amount of fuel buildup can lead to the mega fires we have seen in recent years that devastate ecosystems causing more damage than a frequent but less intense fire would have. While the ministry is working to have as much identified areas around the town treated it will still take time to complete,” the ministry spokesperson added.