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Wildfires: Future-proofing the Okanagan to flourish

UBCO research seeks community resiliency in face of changing environment
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The McDougall Creek wildfire in West Kelowna burned for almost two months and surprised many by jumping across Okanagan Lake to spark fires in Kelowna. (BC Wildfire Services)

How can the Central Okanagan continue to grow and flourish in the shadow of weather extremes creating agricultural crop losses and more frequent wildfires?

That is a challenge that researchers at UBC Okanagan have taken on – how to prepare local communities to be resilient in the face of an ever-changing environment.

Lesley Cormack, principal and deputy vice-chancellor of UBCO, said this falls under the umbrella of future-proofing, preparing a community to change – population growth, climate change or historic weather patterns, social, geopolitical and economic.

At a recent public forum hosted by the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce, Cormack discussed the future-proof impacts of wildfires, joined by the leaders of three different research initiatives.

Mathieu Bourbonnais, a former wildfire firefighter, is exploring the concept of installing real-time data-gathering sensors in the ground to identify wildfires at an early stage and allow for a quicker firefighting response reaction.

These sensors would accumulate data on temperature, humidity and wind speed to help develop predictions for breakout fires.

“We had 15 sensors in West Kelowna that got burnt over by the fire last summer but they provided us data to look over to help understand how the fire burned on the ground,” Cormack said.

Bourbonnais’ research also will investigate the benefits of prescribed burns, which are done at about 60 in number each year, as a way of mitigating groundfloor fuels.

“One of the things we have learned as we have gotten so good at fighting fires is that fires are a natural way to control fuels on the ground. So without those fires, those fuels build up and feed a fire that burns out of control,” Cormack said.

She said the hope is to secure provincial and/or federal funding to develop a research lab to create simulated wildfire conditions to see what vegetation in the bush burns more readily than others.

Sumi Siddiqua, a geo-environmental engineer, is researching different materials that can be used to help make structures more safe from wildfire exposure.

And Andreas Rutkauskas is using his photography skills to focus research on the aftermath and regeneration of post-wildfire landscapes.

He currently has an exhibit of his landscape photography at the Kelowna Art Gallery.

Cormack said the wildfire focus comes from the rural-urban interface that we all live among in the Okanagan.

B.C.’s relationship with forestry continues to be complicated.

Cormack says there are federal and provincial jurisdiction issues at stake, noting logging has been an economic driver in B.C. for decades and one of the earliest ‘crops’ to be harvested across Canada.

“It is interesting now with the wildfires, forest companies are having to think about mitigation efforts or lose a crop of trees, to think differently about replanting in not just planting Douglas fir that grows straight and fast but the need for more diversity of trees, and to think differently about how trees are chopped down,” Cormack said.

Climate change also plays a role, as what is causing a change in our environment is very real, whatever you want to call it.

“There are fires more frequently so what do we do about it? See what the cold snap last winter did to our crops,” she said.

“There needs to be less about debating it but rather to realize here we are in the thick of it now, so how do we manage our environment in a climate that has become less predictable.”

READ MORE: Strong wind could push intense wildfire into B.C.’s Fort Nelson today