Death and broken livelihoods: farmers and wildfires in British Columbia

Cariboo, B.C. (The Guardian) – Two years after wildfires killed the pigs on his family farms in British Columbia, Scott Kellington is still coming to terms with the destruction.

This particular fire had come from the north, its towering flames whipped into a terrible ferocity by strong winds and sustained by the 40C heat. After making sure his wife was evacuated, Kellington and his three sons stayed behind to try to save the neighbourhood homes and livestock.

But while they dug fire guards to protect the 2,000 cows in the neighbour’s farm, they did not notice the flames creeping toward the pig pen in their own backyard. The long, dry grass was perfect tinder. He and his sons watched helplessly as their pigs screamed and the fire engulfed the pen. “It burned down the mountain and burned the house down the street, then burned down our pig pen and [spread] into the trailer park behind us, destroying everything there,” Kellington told the Guardian.

Photograph of wildfire devastation
Scott Kellington shows the devastation wildfires in July 2017 caused to his family farm and its surroundings in the Cariboo region of British Columbia. Photograph: Geoff Webb/The Guardian

The Kellingtons were lucky. There were no human fatalities and the family’s small herd of horses and cows survived. But as wildfires and flooding increase across the US, farm animals are being recognised as being particularly at risk, due to the difficulty of transporting them rapidly.

More than 500 breeding livestock are known to have died in wildfires over the past two years in BC alone. There are no global figures available, but in the US, farmers have suffered similar tragic consequences from wildfires. In Oregon last July, one farmer was found dead next to his burned out tractor. It appeared that the fire overcame him as he also tried to do what Scott Kellington did – clear a strip of land to protect a neighbour’s farm. A young couple died from smoke inhalation and burns when they tried to save their cattle from a Texas wildfire in 2017.

Canadian agriculture workers tell the Guardian that farmers may appear reckless for putting their lives on the line, but much of the public does not realise how devastating it is for farmers to see their animals and crops – their livelihoods – go up in flames.

Last year, more than 1.35m hectares (3.33m acres) of British Columbia’s forests burned, making the wildfire season the worst on record in the province. Canada is home to 10% of the world’s forests and the westernmost province of BC in particular – two-thirds of which is covered in forest – is a leading global lumber producer.

“The emotional toll the farmers are feeling is tremendous. The strongest farmers you know broke down when they realised some of their cattle [weren’t] coming home,” says British Columbia’s minister of agriculture, Lana Popham.

A burnt tree
A burnt tree on land surrounding Scott Wellington’s farm in BC. Photograph: Geoff Webb/The Guardian

Meanwhile, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history, Camp Fire, killed at least 85 people and destroyed almost 19,000 buildings in November, 2018. This year’s wildfires could be even worse, Californian officials have warned.

Across the US, humans either intentionally or accidentally start the majority of wildfires, according to a 2017 survey of US Forest Service records. In sparsely populated British Columbia, on the other hand, 39% of fires are caused by human activity and 61% are caused by lightning strikes, according to government statistics.

Regardless of the instigating causes, the intensity of the “mega fires” that have occurred with greater frequency around the world in recent years has been linked to a combination of complex factors, including climate change,El Niño weather patterns and poor forest management leading to fuel build-up, scientists say.

British Columbia’s government will cover the cost of breeding livestock (animals that have not been sterilised) killed in wildfires, and which numbered more than 530 in 2017 and 2018. However, farming groups say many more animals died, with the farmer unable to claim compensation, and that it can take generations for new animals to adapt to pastures.

“The benefits of having an older bloodline has nothing to do with taste [of the meat]. It’s just that they adapt to their environment so much better. When you bring in new cows, they are not used to the new types of grass so it takes them time to adjust,” says Larry Garrett, president of the BC Cattlemen’s Association.

Garrett is aware that “quite a few” farmers have snuck past police road blocks during previous fires: “Most of these ranchers know their way around. They go in another way to try to find their herds … but it’s extremely difficult in thick smoke,” he says.

The impact of the wildfires lasts long after they burn out. Garrett says his ranch was covered with a thick layer of ash last summer that turned into a “black sludge” that prevented cows from grazing. Insurance policies also don’t usually cover the fire’s effects on livestock’s health (such as burned feet and lungs) that may make them unproductive.

Marnie and Keith Manders, a married couple in Summerland in the picturesque Okanagan area of BC, had to secure a new spring pasture last year for their herd of 125 cows, bulls and calves. It wasn’t easy because other farmers were in the same boat and much of the viable pasture land was occupied.

“The herd won’t be familiar with a new range. It’s just a lot more work, and everywhere you ride there are holes in the ground from the floods that came before the fires,” Marnie Manders says.

“Suddenly you’re up to your belly with your horse. It’s just a bog. Really it’s quite scary out there compared to what it was.”

Despite the regular devastation from wildfires, people tend to forget about the problems during Canada’s cold and rainy seasons, says John Innes, dean of the faculty of forestry at the University of British Columbia. But people should be planning for wildfires all year round because much more can be done to prevent widespread destruction and deaths.

Fire burns on the side of mountain in Keremeos, BC. Photograph: Geoff Webb/The Guardian

“There are really a lot of ways to manage forests more effectively. Controlled burns done well are a very effective tool for certain types of forest systems, provided they are under control and happen at a certain time of year with fires that stay on the ground and burn off fuel without killing trees,” he says.

In areas with leafier trees such as aspen forests, however, controlled burns are risky and not recommended. Brush thinning by hand is too labour-intensive.

Farm animals are now part of the solution, too. This summer, the BC government has invested 500,000 Canadian dollars on a new initiative that will use grazing livestock to restrict the threat of fires. The hope is that as cows munch on grasses in dry areas, it will be less likely that fires spread out of control.

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