UBC Forestry to launch Centre for Wildfire Coexistence

Thanks to $5M donation from the Koerner family.

As British Columbia and Canada set new records for area burned by wildfires, UBC Forestry is taking action by establishing the Centre for Wildfire Coexistence (CWC), a groundbreaking initiative aimed at advancing research, collaboration, and innovation to enable society to coexist with wildfire through proactive management and eco-cultural restoration.

The unprecedented 2023 wildfire season, Canada’s worst on record, underscores the urgency for action. With $5 million in philanthropic support from the Koerner family, this funding will enable the centre to undertake cutting-edge research, assess the efficacy of proactive wildfire management strategies, and co-develop solutions for communities at risk. The CWC’s multidisciplinary approach will leverage expertise from leading researchers, Indigenous Knowledge Holders, other national and international wildfire experts, as well as government agencies to address the complex and evolving wildfire landscape.

“Wildfires pose threats of evacuations, property loss, and health hazards due to smoke inhalation,” says Dr. Lori Daniels, professor of forest and conservation sciences and the inaugural holder of the Koerner Chair in Wildfire Coexistence at UBC. “However, controlled fires remain crucial for maintaining forest health. Historically, low-severity fires sustained diverse forests across BC’s interior, ignited by lightning and Indigenous fire stewardship. These fires thinned forests, curbing intense blazes, and nurtured renewed plant growth, supporting rejuvenation and wildlife habitats.”

In the context of wildfires, “coexistence” involves proactively mitigating catastrophic risks by transforming forest and fire management to bolster landscape resilience. It acknowledges the role of fire in sustaining ecosystems while minimizing harm to lives and properties. The goal is to strike a balance between human safety and vital ecosystem functions, recognizing the dual nature of wildfires — destructive yet ecologically beneficial based on context and severity.

“We believe that the success of the Centre for Wildfire Coexistence hinges on collaboration and engagement with partners at all levels,” says Dr. Daniels. “By actively involving the public, communities, Indigenous leaders, all levels of government, and non-governmental organizations in our research and initiatives, we can co-create effective strategies for wildfire coexistence and build more resilient landscapes.”

Climate change compounds decades of land-use shifts, fire exclusion, industrial forestry, and expanding populations, resulting in unprecedented wildfires. Over seven years, BC endured the most severe and widespread wildfire seasons, burning nearly seven million hectares. The direct costs of these fire seasons exceeded $3 billion. Indirect costs to human health, forest management, watersheds, critical habitat for wildlife and fish, and susceptibility to landslides and flooding is in the tens of billions of dollars.

“This generous donation from the Koerner family is an investment towards a healthier future for our planet,” said Dr. Benoit-Antoine Bacon, president and vice-chancellor of UBC. “The Centre for Wildfire Coexistence will be at the forefront of understanding and managing the complex relationship between wildfires and ecosystem health, bringing together Indigenous peoples, researchers, and government agencies to co-develop strategies for protecting natural landscapes and the communities that depend on them. We are grateful to the Koerner family for enabling us to initiate these collaborations which will greatly benefit British Columbia and all wildfire-prone regions across Canada and around the world.”

The launch of the CWC represents a significant step forward in advancing proactive wildfire management practices and fostering coexistence between people and natural environments. UBC Forestry is excited to embark on this collaborative journey and is grateful to the Koerner family for their support and commitment to supporting wildfire research efforts.

“The Koerner family is proud to catalyze the establishment of the Centre for Wildfire Coexistence at UBC Forestry,” states Michelle Koerner, trustee, the Koerner Foundation. “We recognize the urgent need for proactive management and restoration of our forests to mitigate wildfire impacts, safeguard communities, and foster a safer, sustainable future for the benefit of all Canadians.”

The establishment of the Centre for Wildfire Coexistence demonstrates UBC Forestry’s dedication to addressing the pressing challenges posed by catastrophic wildfires and promoting sustainable coexistence between communities and natural environments. Through a holistic and inclusive approach, the CWC aims to revolutionize wildfire coexistence through innovative research and proactive solutions, paving the way for a safer and more resilient future. This gift is part of FORWARD, the campaign for UBC with the promise and potential to advance healthy lives, a healthy planet, and healthy societies.

Visit the UBC Faculty of Forestry website for more information about the Centre for Wildfire Coexistence.

Listen to a conversation with Dr. Lori Daniels, a UBC alum (MSC'94), on wildfires, climate change, and the future of forest management in this From Here Forward podcast episode.