Originally published as a column on Armchair Mayor News on July 16, 2021.
Today is a heavy day. The morning held a cleaner air promise for a bit but that dissipated towards lunch time when the smoke grew thicker and heavier than it’s been this year. It’s impossible not to think of the firefighters who are exposed to so much more than what we experience even on a bad day like today, for weeks on end.
Many are wondering right now, as summer is but a fire and smoke inferno, whether this is what we should expect from now on.
A lot depends on where we go from here, according to experts who either fought or studied wildland fire for years.
Reading a book about wildfires may not seem like the best idea in times like these, but I highly recommend it. The book in question is Firestorm: How wildfire will shape our future, by Edward Struzik (Island Press, October 2017). It’s sobering yet necessary reading. I have merely finished the first couple of chapters that recount the horrifying days of the fire that swept through the town of Fort McMurray in May 2016.
It feels eerie to read about the future the author was outlying given the complex knowledge about wildfires, megafires and an increasingly hotter and drier climate that he gathered while compiling the book. That future has now become the Lytton tragedy and the hundreds of wildfires burning as we speak. Preventable tragedies? More coming?
Struzik talks about the budget cuts to wildfire prevention and management over the years in the provinces that are most likely to be affected by wildfires. That appears backwards.
More funds have been going into fighting fires as they happen, and they happen increasingly more, while not enough has been set aside for managing fire to prevent the beastly ones that can burn down communities in mere minutes. Yes, we expect a lot from our firefighting crews during these intense fire seasons, but is there more that can be done to minimize the risk to start with?
In the days following the Lytton fire, I came across a thought-provoking article about fire prevention through carefully scheduled prescribed burning. The argument, according to U.S. Forest Service fire expert Mark Finney, comes down to playing offense versus defense with the fires. ‘Fire exists because there is too little fire […] You want to have a fair amount of fire each year on the landscape — mild to moderate fire, helped along to achieve mild to moderate effects. That helps with future fires.’
Suppressing fire, which is a major point that Struzik and many veteran Canadian wildland firefighters bring up, will only add to the risk of future monster fires that will unfortunately come near or, worse, through communities.
Many people nowadays see wildfires as purely destructive, but that’s not an accurate view, Struzik explains. Megafires, which is a fire that burns at least 100,000 acres, have a reason to exist: ‘Coniferous trees that grow in the montane, subalpine, Columbian, and boreal forests are ecologically programmed to burn.’
Burned-out wild areas offer a new lease on life to thrive yet again – both vegetation and wildlife. That’s a rhythm that seems wild to us now and yet it’s been going on for centuries, and it wasn’t all lightning-caused. The North American Indigenous people ‘lit up the forests to promote the growth of berries, to attract wildlife, to clear trails, and to build up firewood supplies.’ Shouldn’t we learn from that?
That sure paints a different relationship with the fires that we have now. Times have changed, and so has our planet’s climate. Weather is hotter and drier for much longer. Industrial and human development that have encroached into lands that used to exist at their own pace, wildfires included.
Perhaps it’s time to take another look at fire prevention and management strategies that worked in the past, and even more so, in the distant past. Also, we need to acknowledge the role climate change plays in helping create these monster fires that are devastating economically, from a human health perspective, emotional included.
And speaking of prevention and doing all we can to support the firefighting crews, we need to see stricter rules and heftier fines for those who put their communities at risk through recklessness (see the five fires in the Knutsford area that were suspected human-caused). Same for anyone whose idea of fun is boating on the lakes used by the firefighting craft, or fly drones in the wildfire zones, which poses a deadly risk to firefighting personnel.
Bottom line, and a hopeful one at that: nightmarish summers like this one need not be the norm, but the exception.