Thompson Rivers University has been granted a new research chair position to examine the impact of wildfires in British Columbia.
Through a $5-million provincially funded endowment, the new B.C. research chair in predictive services, emergency management and fire science is expected to help the province forecast, prevent and respond to wildfires.
The chair will head a team, lead research, direct and supervise graduate students and work with researchers at TRU and other universities. The chair’s research will support wildfire data modelling and help explore the relationship between climate change and its effect on wildfire risk.
TRU president Brett Fairbairn said the university is positioned well to host the research position, due to the number of wildfires that have occurred in the region in recent years, as well as provincial wildfire management services that are centred in Kamloops. He said the research will look beyond the fires and include social impacts, as well.
“This research chair is going to help chart a new course for wildfire protection and response in British Columbia,” Fairbairn said. “The knowledge gained from this research is going to help protect residents infrastructure and economies threatened by forest fires.”
Minister of Forests Doug Donaldson said the research will help provide more information about the changing nature of wildfires.
"Research has a big role to play, especially during these times where fire behaviour has changed drastically," Donaldson said. "This is what the experts tell me that withn the climate emergency we are seeing bigger fires. The fuel load is different. The dry out conditions are different as the weather patterns change."
Donaldson said more research is also needed into Indigenous knowledge and new tools to fight forest fires.
TRU spokesperson Todd Hauptman told KTW the university is looking across Canada for a research chair and intends to have the position filled by the end of the year.
In a statement, mayor Ken Christian said Kamloops is the ideal location for the position, given its natural vulnerability to forest fires and the municipality’s experience with evacuations and recovery. TRU’s campus is also well positioned, as it’s near Emergency Management BC (EMBC) and BC Wildfire Service operational centres and is supported by high-speed fibre optic connections and key transportation routes.
Deputy mayor Dale Bass added Thursday’s announcement speaks to the stature and influence TRU has gained in the province over the years.
“It’s not only going to help B.C., it’s not only going to help the Interior and those areas hit by wildfires every year, it’s continuing to enhance the reputation of this jewel we have in our city called Thompson Rivers University,” Bass said.
The ministries of Forests and Advanced Education will each be chipping in to fund the chair position, with $3.2 million coming from the forestry ministry and $1.8 million from advanced education.
An independent report by former MLA George Abbott and hereditary chief Maureen Chapman commissioned by the province recommended increasing funding for wildfire research — a call the new TRU chair position is answering Donaldson said. B.C. has seen unprecedented wildfire seasons in recent years. In the summer of 2017 a record 1.2-million hectares was burned by 1,350 wildfires. The following year, about 1.3-million hectares burned by 2,117 fires. Between the two seasons, the province spent $1.3 billion fighting wildfires.
The 2019 wildfire season was quieter than anticipated, with 825 wildfires burning 21,138 hectares of land between April 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020.
In 2020 to date, 243 wildfires have burned 708 hectares.
—with a file from Canadian Press