Sunday, May 19, 2024
May 19, 2024

Healthy forests can help protect us from disasters 


Andria Scanlan won’t ever forget the howling winds and trees that came crashing down around her house that December afternoon in 2018.

“We have a long distance view from Channel Ridge, and I could see and hear the gusts rolling in and watch the trees bending over almost to the ground before they would split and crash like thunder,” she said. “It was terrifying. Power was out for 11 days, and our carport was destroyed. Thank goodness no one was hurt.”

Many islanders remember that severe windstorm that hit Salt Spring and caused widespread power outages, downed trees and property damage. Also seared into memories is the atmospheric river of 2021 that washed out many roads, and the extreme heat dome in the summer of 2021 that saw many people suffering under sweltering temperatures. 

We are getting all too familiar with the effects of wildfire smoke in our skies every summer. Fortunately, we haven’t experienced a catastrophic forest fire on the island yet. Nevertheless, the fire department deals with an average of nine brush fires and eight to 10 structure fires each year, which could potentially ignite a disastrous and widespread wildfire. 

Climate change undoubtedly contributes to severe weather conditions, threatening our community and jeopardizing our families and homes. Our forests, however, can play a vital role as buffers and can safeguard us against wildfires, road washouts, flooding, extreme heat, and drought, and, most importantly, preserve the quality of our drinking water.

According to forest ecologist Erik Piikkila, “Healthy forests play a super important role in reducing the impacts of climate change, such as flooding and forest fires. They act as natural defence systems, providing cooling, shading and water retention during periods of intense heat, slowing down and absorbing water and preventing road washouts during heavy rainfall. They even slow down winds during severe storms. Also, healthy forests help store water in the ground, recharging our groundwater supplies, which is critical during our summer droughts.”

Forest ecologist Erik Piikkila.

Piikkila comes from a forestry family from the Comox Valley and has extensive experience in the industry, working for the BC Forest Service as a forest technician for several years, and has been trained in forest ecology by world-renowned forest scientist Jerry Franklin. Piikkila has been a principal consultant with Transition Salt Spring (TSS) and plays a key role in TSS’s Hwmet’utsum/Mt. Maxwell watershed restoration project. This project aims to restore a forested area in the North Salt Spring Waterworks District watershed where historical land use has made the area vulnerable to climate change and forest fires. 

“Contrary to being a fire risk, healthy forests can act as natural firebreaks. A diverse, rich understory can act like a sponge, keeping the forest floor damp. This lush vegetation makes it hard for fires to start and spread,” says Ruth Waldick, Ph.D. and lead scientist on the Hwmet’utsum (Mt. Maxwell) project.

Salt Spring’s assistant fire chief Mitchell Sherrin says a diverse forest is fire-resistant.

“The most resilient trees, such as Douglas-fir with their thick bark, and native ground-covers such as salal, have adapted to protect them from fire, while others, such as Garry oaks, have deep root structures helping them to regrow and regenerate after a fire. In contrast, invasive plants such as broom and gorse can power up a wildfire, fuelling the fire due to their naturally flammable oils. There are no real problems with the native species; they are perfectly adapted to fire.”

Although our island is covered by 14,000 hectares of forest, over the last century, the Coastal Douglas-fir zone on Salt Spring Island has undergone changes due to logging, housing, road building and other human activities. Many of these forests have been replanted and consist of second- and third-growth trees of the same age and type, which have grown very close together with very few large old trees. These plantations have altered a naturally fire-resistant and diverse ecosystem to one vulnerable to fire and severe weather. Forest ecologists call these single-species forests “monocultures” or “tree plantations.”

Many of these forests don’t hold water well and lack the native understory that prevents washouts and flooding in extreme rain. Salal, Oregon grape, ocean spray, moss and lichen mats contribute to a healthy understory. 

Over 75 per cent of Salt Spring’s forests are owned by private landowners, which gives most of us a unique opportunity to play a big role in ensuring that the forests are kept healthy and resilient to the effects of climate change. 

“Individual property owners can play a crucial role in maintaining healthy forests to protect themselves against climate emergencies,” says Piikkila. “We need to manage the forests in a way that restores some of the biodiversity and complexity that made them naturally resistant to fires. Thinning tightly packed trees can create small gaps in the canopy, allowing light to reach the ground, which encourages the growth of saplings and understory vegetation. These gaps also reduce the risk of fire moving across the forest canopy. Removing invasive plants and leaving some dead standing trees and large logs on the ground as moisture sponges are a few actions landowners can take.”

Transition Salt Spring is committed to helping islanders care for their forests through collaborative partnerships and building upon the Maxwell watershed restoration project, which has gathered a community of partners to share expertise and the latest science to apply on the ground. As part of this effort, TSS is rolling out workshops for islanders and practitioners to exchange lessons learned and promote knowledge sharing. 

Reflecting on the damage from the windstorm that hit Salt Spring in 2018, Scanlan shares, “If I had known then what I know now about how a healthy forest can stop trees from coming down under high winds, perhaps the damage wouldn’t have been so severe. It’s never too late to learn and take action.”

If you want to learn more about healthy forests and protect your home from climate emergencies, register for Transition Salt Spring’s upcoming webinar on Thursday, June 1 or a field trip walk in Duck Creek on June 4, both with forest ecologist Piikkila.

Register at

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