Fight Fire with Fire: An Interview with Bob Gray, Wildland Fire Ecologist - GTEC Green Technology Education Centre

Listen to Mary Kean reading this article (19:54)

Bob Gray was born in Guelph, Ontario to American parents. As a dual national, he learned about forests in British Columbia as well as Montana, New Jersey, and Arizona. In 1980 he was on his first “prescribed burn”, an intentional burning in order to thwart the path of a forest fire. That experience encouraged him to study forestry and fire science at university and to continue doing so for forty-three years.

I became interested to speak with Bob further after reading an article in the Vancouver Sun in which Gray took exception to Bruce Ralston, Forestry Minister, who claimed fire-stressed communities in B.C. had access to money but had not tried to obtain it.

“Yeah,” said Bob, “that was a very simplified response to things. There’s always more complication to it than that but communities are trying to access any dollars they can get their hands on to do fuels treatments, and to characterize it as the money’s there, but no one’s applying for it, is just completely inaccurate. A number of communities that I work with have applied to every single pot of money we could get their hands on. The problem is, there’s just not enough.

“What’s eligible as a treatment or activity under one grant isn’t for another. You’re trying to cobble together multiple grants to get projects of scale done. There’s no flexibility to move money around as needed. There’s any number of issues and the thing is, they’ve been known for a long time. But there’s just been no will to adjust things and make things easier to get more work done on the ground. At the end of the day, this is all about reducing fuels and hazards.”

I recognized in Bob’s voice a new emotion reserved for climate warriors: the sense of frustration but also of determination that so many of us are experiencing as we put whatever skill we have to this monumental task, not the least of which is to get government and funders to see the urgency of the situation. With that in mind, let me share the remainder of the interview with you.

GTEC: Are you saying that it’s not so much a matter of technique as it is getting the money to pay people to do the job?

Robert Gray: Exactly so. It’s a pace and scale issue. After the 2003 fires in the Okanagan, there was a Royal Commission called the Filmon Report and since that time we know the scale of the problem. But we’ve done postage stamps: 15 hectares here and 10 hectares there and maybe 20 hectares there. And the fires are of such an immense scale that they just gobble those things up. They don’t even slow them down at all. Understand that the dynamics of fire behavior means that you have to start to apply these treatments at the same scale as the fires. That’s going to cost money to do that. If you want to save money doing that, then you deal with the barriers that affect the finances of it. There’re all kinds of directions that this thing should be going and it should have been going in for over a decade. But it’s been anemic. It’s been inconsistent. Statements like what the minister said are just not helpful.

GTEC: It seems difficult to get the funding for this basically big, huge paradigm shift altogether. Very frustrating.

Robert Gray: Yeah. Yeah, it’s very frustrating. And oftentimes we’re having to cobble together funds from a couple of different pots to get enough done at scale and our reporting systems are very cumbersome. They (can) eat up 15-20% just in admin just to get these things done right and then you end up still doing a fair bit of pro bono just to get more work done on the ground. But then, amazingly, when the fires break out, you know, then there’s no end to the amount of money we can suppress fires. We have to shift that focus from reactionary to pro-actionary. That’s been well articulated by the UN and FEMA and others for years.

GTEC: Is the private sector helping with this issue at all?

Robert Gray: The industry is some; they’re making some investments. You know there are community forests, for example, who are sinking a certain proportion of their profits back into fuels mitigation. Some of the wood lot owners are doing the same thing. So they’re being pretty responsible. They should be getting some help from the province to do that. The big players, I don’t know enough about what they’re doing. I wouldn’t suggest they’re doing as much as they could be.

Some people have looked at private foundations, but I have a personal opinion that this is crown land to be administered and managed by the Crown on behalf of the public, and so there is a responsibility for the Crown to treat the Crown’s own hazard. It shouldn’t be left to individuals to do that.

GTEC: I’m interested in what trees are planted in the forest to replace the harvested ones. Who chooses what species are to be planted? The Province? The company?

Robert Gray: In the forest regulations, there are definitely preferred species that are identified, and by and large they’re chosen based on economics (from) amongst that list, which is basically ecologically appropriate, (while) the industry has some flexibility to choose which ones (are planted).

But there’s been a lot of discussion about the need to shift that focus, one for increased biodiversity. Two for breaking up the monocultures which lead to issues around disturbance, insects and disease, and three for climate mitigation and wildfire mitigation.

There’s been a lot of debate and discussion about hardwoods and whether we should be planting larger scale patches of hardwoods, which can influence fire movement across the landscape, for example, fire spread and fire direction. But right now, they’re not really a preferred species from an economic perspective.

There’s a great need to look into these things to ensure that on the landscape scale we’re meeting more than just a fairly simplistic economic objective. We’re meeting a range of other objectives and primarily a fire has to be the first one because fires trump everything.

Where we can grow hardwoods to meet a fire resilience objective, then we should be looking at that and we should be focusing more of our attention on that versus just following the same (routine): we’re going to plant this sort of money tree over and over and over again, and it hasn’t served us well.

GTEC: My understanding is that Aspen are good fire breaks because Aspen doesn’t burn very easily.

Robert Gray: Yeah, we’re actually doing some research on Aspen in certain conditions (such as) when you have healthy Aspen with very few conifers. When you have that fairly large scale closed canopy Aspen stand, you have some pretty good impacts on fire behavior. One you have higher humidity below the canopy and you have more moist fuels, you lower the temperature and you have wind friction, so all of these things influence fire behavior.

Some anecdotal information about Aspen: I fought fires in the US for quite a while and I was on a fire in New Mexico one time where we basically used a large Aspen stand as a safety zone. But it takes a while for Aspen to get into that state and then it doesn’t stay in that state forever. Shade tolerant conifers come in and beyond a certain threshold, it starts to change fire behavior and Aspen becomes flammable again. The problem on the landscape is you’re managing for this thing that’s moving in Space and Time and also seasonally. Aspen will burn in the springtime and Aspen will burn in the fall. But, it fits this important niche when it comes to changing fire flow in the landscape. There’s caveats to it here on the coast where we’re starting to see more fires.

Big leaf, Maple, Alder, Birch, Cottonwood function very similarly. You know they’re hardwood species, and if there’s not a lot of conifers then they’ll they change that under story environment, which is inhospitable to fire, but they’ll burn in the spring and they’ll burn the fall, too. But they have very low fire intensity in the spring and fall. There’s still very many advantages to looking seriously at hardwoods where we can.

GTEC: But they’re not fast growing and therefore not a money crop?

Robert Gray: Well, actually they grow pretty fast on productive sites. Aspen grows pretty fast. The problem is they’re a different product stream. You can chip it up; you can use it to make particle board. It doesn’t make dimension lumber but the hardwoods down here in southwestern BC do. Birch and Maple and Alder make great furniture, so it’s just getting the industry to recognize that part of this transformational change that we talk about (means) looking at different product streams and at different industries. All of these things have to be part of this future mix if we’re going to be successful in having an impact on fire behavior at that scale.

GTEC: These firestorms are different from other fires that you fought before.

Robert Gray: You hear the experienced fire people who’ve been at this for 30 years and they will say they never saw fire behavior like that. And the reality is that these fire seasons are getting longer which means the fuels are just getting more and more depleted of moisture beyond levels that we used to see historically for a couple days. Well, now it’s for weeks on end. Then larger scale landscapes burning mega fires (result in) more of the fuel bed being engaged.

The fuels are just, they’re just so dry. We’ve never seen them that dry and it’s the ground fuels which is the Duff and the logs and the canopies of the of the forests. So, now all of the layers of the fuel bed are ready to burn and with the large fuel and dead material and over time, we’ve just accumulated large quantities of dead wood that’s just stored energy. And when we release that energy, it has significant consequences.

GTEC: Indeed. Certainly when it hits the interface and begins to burn houses, you’ve got the augmentation of the fuel in the house. Plus any gas or oil in any cars’ gas tanks.

Robert Gray: We often think about California and certainly parts of the southeastern United States where there’s lots of interface but BC is 92% publicly owned land. There’s not a lot of private land. A lot of communities are actually pretty much hemmed in. They can’t keep expanding.

Some places it’s interface, some places it’s intermix, but yeah, wildland fires are becoming urban conflagrations with home to home ignition going on; the focus needs to be on rapidly expanding this area of treatment. The focus in BC since the Filmon Report was always a two kilometer buffer which didn’t have a lot of solid science to back it up. And the fires we’re seeing now – the fire up at Adams Lake and Shuswap did a 25K run in 12 hours. We’re seeing more and more of that.

If you just look solely at providing enough time for people to evacuate, then you need to be slowing down these fires further out on the landscape. Ten kilometers out, fifteen kilometers out. 2K buys us minutes, not hours. With 10K out we can buy time for people to safely get out of the community. Of course, the larger the community is (in relation to) the egress routes, then the more we have to focus on. That mathematical equation of slowing down fire, buying time for safe evacuation and things like that.

GTEC: This seems to me to be a very ongoing situation that we’re looking at now with the climate crisis, and using the word emergency gives you the idea that this happens occasionally, but it’s not really something on-going that we need to tackle. What’s your thinking about that?

Robert Gray: That’s a really good point. Earlier this spring the fires pretty much started in the north in May, which is not that unusual for the boreal –  northern Quebec and northern Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC, but it started pretty significantly in May and the comment (was made that) Well, this fire season took us by surprise, and a number of climatologists and meteorologists said, well, no, we gave you plenty of warning.

The reality is with climate change, we should be prepared for this to happen every year. Whether you have a good snowpack or not, the reality is (the snowpack) can disappear quite rapidly, like it did this year. It happened in 2017 and 2018 where we had a normal snowpack and it went in no time. 2021 The heat Dome. So, we have to be on this footing to consider that we can be in these conditions, or worse, any year. (We need to be) talking to the public about the fact that, you know, you’re in the interior of BC, which has a fire season this long, and you may have to evacuate at any time. So, getting people to think about the ecosystem that they live in and being prepared. Other places it’s flooding, you know? But yeah, increased critical thinking, situational awareness, all those things. It’s not fear mongering as some people might suggest. “Well, we don’t do that because we’re scaring people,” No, you’re just preparing people, right?

No one wants to be notified at 2:00 in the morning that they have to evacuate. Now it’s getting people thinking that, OK, this could happen and alert means be ready to go and probably just leave ahead of time before the order comes. But changing the attitude so that people are living understanding that this is the way things are happening in the future.

GTEC: The fire season this year seemed to start in like April.

Robert Gray: May. Yeah. And we were still conducting prescribed burning in late April. Then it was shortly after that that things got going in early May and then it just never let up.

GTEC: Why don’t people listen and do something about this to prepare?

Robert Gray: It’s a really complicated issue. I’ve been speaking out to the media for 20 years and trying to figure out the political process and what’s it going to take to do things. There’s a lot of hope that this year is going to turn things around. We’ve been there before 2017, 2018, 2020-2021.

It is a massive problem. Climate change, adaptation to climate change, and transformation from climate change is part of this. That’s a national scale problem. It’s an international scale problem. I think people are just afraid of what it’s going to cost, what are the implications going to be. But the longer we dither, the worse it’s going to get and it’s going to continue to kill people. We’ve had five firefighters killed this year. It’s going to continue to exacerbate climate change. It’s going to continue to cause significant health problems for our population as well as our neighbors. It’s going to continue to erode the budget. We’re at about $600 million so far this year in suppression. That’s just the suppression cost, not the total indirect and additional cost It’ll be a several billion dollar fire season again. That starts to cut into social programs and infrastructure investment and everything else. The longer you put this off, the worse it’s going to get, and you’re foreclosing on any future options to look at things in a more integrated, holistic and diverse way.

GTEC: The figure, $375 million from the 2003 fires, was quoted, but you think that the indirect and other costs would be in the billions?

Robert Gray: Yeah, we did a position paper when I was with the Association for Fire Ecology on the Board of Directors there, that you can get off their website. Some of the published literature (quotes) 6 to 26 times the suppression costs. If you have $100 million fire season, it’s likely the direct and the additional costs make it is 2 to 26 times more. You’re having $10 billion fire seasons.

The US Commerce Department estimates that the economic burden of wildfires is 75 to $300 billion a year and the EU just pegged it at €21 billion (including) indirect and additional costs of wildfires in the European Union. Looking at the US numbers and the EU numbers, it’s not hard to extrapolate to Canada and suggest that these are multi-billion dollar fire seasons.

GTEC: Bob, could you comment on the contributions of the Indigenous Community?

Robert Gray: Yes. There is a very sophisticated understanding of fire ecology amongst Indigenous peoples, not only here but around the world. It was so important to their culture and their survival. It was food security. You wanted early prescribed burn conditions because that produced all of the plants you needed to survive the berries, roots, nuts. Everything else. Medicinal plants especially. We’ve done a lot of research on how much our landscapes have changed and how fire behavior has changed. And historically all of that Indigenous burning produced this mosaic of conditions across the landscape that only resulted in small fires. It limited fire size and fire severity. It created meadows and grasslands and shrublands and open forest and recently burned forests and everything else. Many of these things function to interrupt fire spread. So they just didn’t get large fires.

What we need to do in the future is actually start to emulate those patterns through thinning and prescribed burning and much more cultural burning and conversion to hardwoods. All that’s part of it. Those conditions that were there 150 years to 200 years ago. There’s still so much to learn from our Indigenous partners. Luckily, we’re working very closely with them. It’s an opportunity to learn from their stewardship and it’s really the recipe for success in the future.

GTEC: What about open camp fires? Should we just restrict open camp fire burning in the forest altogether in British Columbia?

Robert Gray: I think we need some better understanding of what are the circumstances behind human caused fires and actually produce some decent statistics on OK, what is the risk of various things that are happening in the woods? And, if we look at that and it turns out that we should be putting bans on sooner or full bans in the forest, then we should. We should be looking at all of these things as potential solutions.

GTEC: It seems we need a lot more personnel to work on these giant fires

Robert Gray: There’s a lot of discussion right now about this national firefighting force and quite a few of us disagree with the way it’s currently being envisioned, which is just simply another suppression force. We need a lot of people involved in fuels work (such as) prescribed burning cultural burning and thinning and they should be in the local community or in the local region. In the springtime they’re able to start doing this work, and then they’re available for firefighting in the summer. Once the firefighting season is done, they’re back to doing field work until winter comes. And in winter, you do your training and everything else. That’s the workforce that we need and it needs to be centered at the local community level, so every community or every couple of communities has this workforce. They’re stable and they’re working away at this problem.

If we can get ahead of the fuels crisis, then eventually it will impact the suppression crisis. If all we do is focus on suppression, we’re not getting ahead of the problem. It’s a paradox: the more we suppress, the worse eventual fires become. You have to get out ahead and tackle the fuel. So that’s what the workforce should be there for. Not just some simple we’re going to hire a bunch of people in the summer. They’re going to put out fires. And then what after that? That’s what we need to do.

GTEC: That’s the ongoing idea of these are real professionals.

Robert Gray: It’s a career. And at the local level it moves it away from currently mediocre funded projects to actually stably funded programs. You have to shift this fire mitigation thing to a program level. It’s something you’re doing all the time versus just right now. There (should be) money now for some projects in the next year. If there’s no money, then there’s no projects. This is stop, start, stop, start and you’re never getting ahead of the problem, so it has to be stable and focused on meeting specific deliverables and then that’s programmatic.

GTEC: OK, that’s fantastic. Thank you so much.

Robert Gray: All right. Nice to meet you.

Mary Kean is a widely published poet and writer. She edited The Journal of Collaborative Therapies and was a Couple and Family Therapist for over 20 years. The Climate Crisis has been a concern of hers since she read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Her work as editor of the GTEC Reader is on behalf of her grandchildren.