Studying the forest for the trees

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We walk through the forest, crisscrossing wildlife paths. The ground rises and falls beneath our feet. Brush swipes pant legs; rocks roll under our shoes as we make our way from the logging road to the site of today’s work.

Tim Chapman (Wildsight’s coordinator for Youth Climate Corps Kimberley/Cranbrook) and I traverse this crown land just outside Cranbrook to meet up with the six-member Youth Climate Corps crew. This team is measuring and recording regenerative growth, affectionately called “regen”: young trees and saplings all rising to fill in the gaps left by past logging in the area.

After settling into the team’s latest plot location, we witness a dance underway, complete with its own language and movements: “.75 for 1, 0 for 10, 0 for 100, plus .15 for grass,1” calls out an orange-vested woman, kneeling to study a plastic-piped frame lying on the ground. This 1/4m squared picture frame of foliage tells Kaylee far more than it tells me. All I see is some low-lying brush, a few twigs. Some pinecones. What she has been trained to see is fuel for a wildfire. Specifically, how long it would take each of these fuel sources to dry out enough to be engulfed in flame2.

Using a laminated set of ID sheets, Kaylee can tell at a glance what wildfire materials lie in this humble square.

“I’ve memorized (the sheet) because I’ve done this so much,” she remarks, as she walks forward with the frame.

When they began this flagship project in July, crew members admit the pace was slow. They doubted their ability to record what they saw accurately, and would refer to the ID sheets repeatedly. Now, it is becoming second nature.

Fellow crew member Tracey dutifully records the binary-like codes on a plot sheet.

“It was a learning curve to be able to tell what tree is what,” says Tracey. “Now, we can all tell, even from a distance.”

There’s a few tools to this work. The plastic frame. Diameter tape and a compass. A digital mapping tool. A clinometer (measures ground slope in percent and degrees). The team measures the trees, including height and diameter, all within each marked plot area, as well as noting the species.

“You spend the whole day hugging trees,” laughs Tracey. Kaylee adds, “Yeah, you come out smelling like trees too!”

Two crews work simultaneously, keeping their plots within shouting distance or view of each other when possible. On the other side of an old access road, Noah, Amanda and Jessie (Francesca was away the day I joined the crew) work together quickly to collect the data, then shift to their last plot of the day.

A plot3 can be completed in as little as 7 or 8 minutes or as long as 45 minutes, depending on the volume of regenerative growth. Plots are spaced 50 metres apart. Survey point by survey point, data is collected.

Work pauses while the next plot is located. Crickets add to the atmosphere with their insistent song. Aspen leaves rustle above us, and you can feel a calmness here.

It’s hard to imagine this vista engulfed in flames, raging down the mountainsides and tearing through the undergrowth and up into the tree canopy. But severe wildfires are a growing reality, and becoming an increasing threat to the safety of our communities across BC.

So what do wildfires have to do with plot points and plastic piped frames?

Everything.

The crew trains with Robert Gray at the start of the season.

Why this data?

The Youth Climate Corps team was surveying areas that have undergone wildfire fuel mitigation treatments. The goal of these mitigation treatments is to reduce the risk of wildfires by getting rid of excessive regeneration and possible materials that could add fuel to a wildfire. This is achieved through thinning (clearing out some of that material) or a controlled burn (prescription burning). Right now, the gap for wildfire risk management work in this region is knowing what happens in the forest after performing these treatments. The Youth Climate Corps project sought to bridge that gap with on-the-ground information.

The data will be used by wildland fire ecologist Robert Gray, one of BC’s leading wildland ecologists. Robert is a vocal advocate of prescribed burns to help alleviate the worst of wildfires. He will input this data into a modelling system that helps predict when and where is optimal to do prescribed burns, taking into consideration exactly what should be burned, or what could be left. The modelling also predicts what kind of wildfire behaviour could occur on this landscape in various scenarios.

“He wants to be able to create a predictive model, like for a certain type of fire, how quickly will that fire spread, and what damage will it do,” sums up crew member Noah.

After the last plot of the day is measured, we head back to the logging road where a row of trucks are parked. The crew is tired, but happy with the work they’re doing. After a chatty walk back to the cars, they stop and reflect, all agreeing that the work is labour-intensive, but satisfying.

“This is for a real cause, one that could save our whole city,” says Kaylee. “Bob’s trying to institute something that could actually save us all.”

Aside from Gold Creek (a forest service area just south of Cranbrook), where the crew spent a total of five weeks; they also surveyed plots in Kimberley’s Nature Park for two weeks and spent another three at Shadow Mountain (between Kimberley and Cranbrook alongside the St. Mary’s River). They surveyed more than 600 plots, which can be extrapolated to approximately 2,000 hectares of wildfire information.
YCC Kimberley/Cranbrook completed this portion of the program in late September.

“I’m very happy with this data,” Robert shares. “It has huge value, and I’m extremely thankful we were able to pull this project together, and that the crew collected all this information.”

Visit Youth Climate Corps for more information.

  1. 10, and 100 refer to the fuel type: 1 hour, 10 hour, 100 hour, measured in Kg/m2. This hour count is roughly how long each type of fuel (pine needles, small-medium twigs and branches, and old downed trees for example) takes to dry and become available to burn in a fire
  2. The numbers called out are the estimated weight of fuel present in the 1/4m2 plot – for example, 0.75Kg for 1 hour
  3. The map of each block has a 50×50 metre grid overlay. The crew samples at each grid intersect. First, they establish a random compass bearing at this point. On that random bearing they run a 30m transect line to sample accumulated ground fuels. From the plot centre, they count regenerating trees within a 5.64m radius
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