Contractors clearing fire risks in Yukon forests can now keep wood

The Yukon government is aiming to make communities in the territory more resilient to wildfires, in part through fuel-reduction projects that it expects will have lower than usual monetary costs.

“The strategic vision of [the] branch is to really marry those interests of fire-risk reduction with biomass and forest industry support,” said Damien Burns, the director of Yukon Wildland Fire Management (WFM), on Thursday.

Contractors involved can keep the fuel, notably the wood, that they clear from forests. They can then sell that harvest as firewood, for example.

According to the government, this will be the first time in the territory that contractors will be allowed to keep that material through projects like this. Before, the wood was given out to the public for free.

The latter will still occur when government crews do the clearing, according to Kat Hallett, a spokesperson for WFM.

The wood harvested through these projects can be kept by the contractor. (Steve Silva/CBC)

This two-for-one deal for contractors will be factored into contracts, and it’s expected to bring those costs down, though the government didn’t provide an estimate for how much it expects to save.

Hallett said the first project’s landscape treatment for about 9.2 hectares produced wood worth about $50,000.

On Thursday, the government brought journalists on a tour of that project.

It’s called the Mary Lake Shaded Fuelbreak, which is close to the eponymous subdivision in southern Whitehorse.

The project is part of a new fire prevention and mitigation program that the territorial government is paying $1.27 million for annually.

Crews used chainsaws to cut down some trees to space out the remaining trees in the forest.

A more open environment can make it safer for firefighters to respond to fires, according to Luc Bibeau, a wildfire prevention specialist with WFM.

Their preference is to keep trees with higher levels of moisture, namely ones that won’t burn as intensely nor help fires spread as easily as their counterparts.

Many tree limbs are cut down and burned as part of projects of this type. (Steve Silva/CBC)

Sometimes these preferred trees are planted. WFM crews planted about 10,000 aspen trees around Whitehorse last year, Hallett said.

Some tree limbs close to the ground were removed to prevent potential future fires from using the limbs to spread upward. This trimming also makes forests less dense.

“You can see wildlife, you can see people,” Bibeau said. “It’s also really conducive for trails and such.”

The less desirable tree parts were put into piles, which were burned on the spot.

Parts of trees that can act as fuel for fires are cut off and then burned on the spot. (Steve Silva/CBC)

Catherine Welsh, a fuels management forester for WFM, said deciding which areas get this kind of landscape treatment involves taking topography, tree types, and the directions of prevailing winds, among other things, into consideration.

Each area can have different versions of this overall treatment.

The purpose isn’t to fully prevent fires from occurring but to, among other things, make them harder to travel through — a speed bump of sorts for fires that approach the city.

The project, managed by WFM, lasted about six weeks and wrapped up on Friday, according to Hallett. Work was performed by WFM’s firefighting crews, along with crews contracted with Yukon First Nations Wildfire — the first contractor so far.

Similar projects have happened in the territory before, but not at this scale, according to Hallett.

The project is one of several planned to treat 275 hectares by 2023 as part of the Mary Lake Shaded Fuelbreak. Other similar projects are in the works for other areas of the territory, she said.

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