Will wildfires get too intense to fight?
New research suggests climate change will dramatically hamper our ability to stop future fires from destroying communities
Brian Simpson was 16 years old when he fought his first wildfire, snuffing out a small blaze started by a lightning strike on a hillside just north of Stewart, a mining village in northwest B.C. so remote it had no streetlights.
That summer of 1976, the excited rookie and two veteran firefighters dutifully rushed into the woods, with no helicopter support or radio to contact other crews.
"That fire could have probably been allowed to just burn and it would have put itself out," said Mr. Simpson, who retired two years ago as head of the BC Wildfire Management Branch. "But in those days, the mantra was: All fire is bad, so we got to suppress it.
"And that's what we did."
Today, front-line firefighters use almost the exact same drip torches, shovels and water pumps, but the ways in which authorities understand, predict and suppress wildfires has changed immeasurably, according to Mr. Simpson, who spent four decades fighting fires across Canada and working in the forestry industry.
The techniques used to fight fires – and the strategies to prevent them – have taken on new urgency in recent years with global warming exacerbating several devastating fire seasons across different provinces.
B.C. has been in a state of emergency for the past week, as hundreds of fires have forced more than 16,000 people from their homes and threatened entire towns and cities. The wildfire season began earlier and is more intense than years past, a trend experts say will continue.
Last year, the Fort McMurray fire became the most destructive in Canadian history, destroying nearly 1,600 buildings, triggering almost $4-billion in insurance claims and killing two people who crashed their car during their escape from the city.
Experts say we must shift how we approach wildfires as new research shows climate change will dramatically hamper our ability to stop future fires from destroying communities and industrial assets.
Canada, among the countries with the most trees in the world, has been very successful managing wildfires, but the number of fires too intense for even large water tankers to suppress is predicted to double by the end of this century, according to a new study in Environmental Review Letters.
That's a massive problem because, each year, the most intense blazes represent about 3 per cent of Canada's wildfires, yet, do about 97 per cent of the overall damage, according to the study's co-author Mike Flannigan.
"It's a few extreme fires that cause all our problems, at least from society's point of view," said Dr. Flannigan, a University of Alberta professor who has been studying the interaction of fire with weather and climate for more than 30 years.
Climate change will make Canada hotter and drier, which will lead to less moisture in the forests, creating more fuel and ratcheting up the intensity of fires, Dr. Flannigan said.
It's hard to predict, Dr. Flannigan says, but research shows that a 10-per-cent increase in the intensity of a fire could lead to a doubling or tripling of the overall territory consumed by flames.
"This is where the appropriate response … allows you to concentrate on problem fires and hope to get to them while they're still small, while allowing Mother Nature to take its course in the back 40," Dr. Flannigan said.
By allowing fires to burn more of the landscape, a mosaic of burnt patches begin to act as a natural fire retardant capable of stopping fires for another 15 to 20 years, he said.
Mr. Simpson, now a forestry consultant, said if firefighters allow more wildfires to burn in order to focus on ones that threaten communities, they face criticism from the public bothered by vista-spoiling smoke drifting in from kilometres away.
The Wildfire Management Branch is also held responsible if one of these remote fires escapes to threaten a city, he added.
"As a society, we have to recognize that if we're going to manage this problem appropriately, we're going to have to accept the fact that, at times, we may have to have a little smoke in the air that we may not like," he said. "But it's going to a better outcome than what we're seeing in the Chilcotin today."
The three most catastrophic fires in modern Canadian history – Slave Lake, Kelowna and Fort McMurray – have all come in the past two decades and more communities will surely burn in the coming decades, according to Glen McGillivray, managing director of the Toronto-based Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction.
Mr. McGillivray says only a fraction of Fort McMurray was burned, but it was by sheer grace that only two people were killed as the city of more than 80,000 was forced into evacuating the community a year ago.
"This huge grief that's come from Fort Mac came from less than 10 per cent of the loss of that town and, really, what would we be looking at if we lost half of that?" Mr. McGillivray said.
"We could have been looking at a staggering loss on the financial side and how we didn't lose hundreds of people, I don't know."
Because of these recent blazes, B.C. and Alberta have invested more in prevention and are better prepared than their counterparts further east, he says.
Earlier this year, Alberta announced it would spend $15-million a year for the next three years on helping communities implement the national FireSmart program aimed at removing fuel sources and mitigating the wildfire risk posed by nearby forests. Over the past two years, B.C. has approved almost $900,000 in FireSmart grants and invested $78-million through its own plan to help local governments and First Nations reduce their risk. The B.C. plan was set up after the 2003 Kelowna fire.
Mr. Simpson says these programs are valuable, but a more effective approach to fire-proofing the nearby landscape could be adopted if the forestry industry – and its expertise and equipment – was brought in to help communities.
These prevention strategies should become more commonplace across the country as climate change will soon mean these natural disasters will no longer be thought of as a "Western issue" in Canada, Mr. McGillivray said.
"If you look historically at some of the 19th-century fires: fire got into Fredericton, fire's gotten into Timmins," he said. "We even had one around Halifax just a couple years ago where a few homes were lost. And the big fire in Tennessee late last year just shows we can have big fires in the East."