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Country Gentleman: The threat of forest fires

A chestnut tiger butterfly alights on a flower to drink its nectar, in Shinano, Nagano Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of the C. W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

After my recent trip to Greenland and arctic Canada, I spent a few days in North Vancouver, where I have three grown children and five grandchildren, as well as many friends. Coming out of Vancouver airport I soon noticed the haze that hung not only over the city, but also over the mountains. Some of this pollution might have been from the city itself, but most of it came from the forest fires that have been raging in British Columbia for several weeks.

As I write this article some 600,000 hectares of forest have been destroyed by fire in British Columbia alone, with the number of fires being about 900 in all. Drier, shorter winters and earlier snowmelt can be one of the causes, and during the five days I was staying in North Vancouver there was hot sun every day, with only a little rain.

The usual human carelessness and error starts most of these forest fires, but about 35 percent are started by lightning strikes. These fires of course release even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, adding to climate change, which, in the minds of most intelligent Canadians and other folk, is undeniable.

In the arctic, we saw so many retreating glaciers, and were presented with so much evidence of decreasing sea ice and the effects this is wreaking on wildlife and on Inuit hunting and travel. However, climate change is too great a subject to jam into this small article so I'd like to mention some ways to decrease the likelihood of forest fires.

When I want to start a campfire here in Japan, (something that of course I would avoid or take extreme care with in forest-fire prone woods), the most easily available kindling is dead, dried cedar (cryptomeria) twigs. Unfortunately, because so many conifers have been planted and left untended in this country, there are plenty of dried twigs lying around on our forest floors. When trees grow densely together, lower branches lose sunshine and die. If you are in the countryside and look around at cedar plantations you will see that so many of the lower branches are dead on the tree, with many more fallen and brown. This is tinder for forest fires.

In tending such trees one must first cut off any dead or dying branches and tidy them up into piles, not leave them strewn around. Piles of cut branches can retain more moisture and provide habitat and shelter for small birds, animals and insects. In time they will rot and return nutrients to the ground. Thinning out crowded tress is also essential if you want a healthy, productive forest.

In Canada, other potential fire hazards are dense growths of brush, much of which is made up of invasive species. These also die off as more grows, producing even greater danger for fires.

An increasingly effective and environmentally sound way to cut down on this growth of weeds in woodland, parkland, farmland and pasture in Canada is by the controlled and judicious use of herds of goats. Goats are known to eat pretty well anything, and of course, depending on your likes and dislikes are extremely edible themselves.

I look forward to doing more investigation into this and sharing it with you all through this column. Pass the goat cheese, some olives, and the chilled white wine please. (This is the seventh installment of a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol.)

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