Lori Daniels studies forest fires in deep time, looking hundreds of years into the past. But on Tuesday, the University of British Columbia ecologist was concerned about something more immediate, as smoke billowed over the province in what is turning into a record-setting year for wildfires across much of Western Canada.
"We just pulled our field crew because the fire hazard is too high," Prof. Daniels, whose team was in the Alex Fraser Research Forest near Williams Lake, in southcentral B.C., where they were finding clues to this fire season by cutting into ancient fire scars, said.
Her research is part of a growing body of evidence that supports a call for a different way of managing our forests – one that puts greater emphasis on reducing the fire hazard and less importance on the economic value of logging.
Buried in the rings of trees, Prof. Daniels has found a forest fire record that stretches beyond the historic data, which only goes back about a century. The pattern that emerges shows that, before modern fire suppression began, fires burned more frequently but less intensely.
Prof. Daniels says the bigger, hotter fires that are currently sweeping across the West are largely due to climate change and the hot, dry weather conditions of this spring and summer – but also to the firefighting policies of the past: By putting out so many fires so quickly, we created forests loaded with fuel, which under the current drought conditions have become extreme hazards.
"In our dry forests, where we have suppressed all fires, we have actually removed some fires from the landscape that would have had a positive impact by maintaining forest structures that are more open, with less fuel," she said.
Before modern firefighting began, those frequent, low-intensity fires burned off needles, branches and small logs on the ground, reducing the fuel load.
"Without those fires, the fuels have been building up and building up and the forests have become more dense," she said.
We have been slow to adopt strategies that would make forests more resilient to fires – by allowing small fires to burn, setting fires to burn off undergrowth and encouraging mixed forest types – because those methods conflict with optimizing timber production, Prof. Daniels said.
She says climate change will make bad fire seasons increasingly common.
"What we see [now] as extreme will be average. That's alarming," she said.
Across the West, the fire season has already surpassed levels usually not experienced until late August.
In B.C., 23 new fires were reported Tuesday, bringing the number to 45 currently burning and a total of 887 this year. As 70 Ontario firefighters arrived in Abbotsford to help bolster provincial crews, clouds of smoke from fires on the Sunshine Coast were slowly lifting over Vancouver after blanketing the city for days.
In Alberta, 93 fires were burning, pushing the total for the year to 1,289 – well above the five-year average of 832. In Saskatchewan, 54 communities were under full or partial evacuation, with more than 100 active fires. And in Manitoba, 59 fires were burning, bringing the total to 293 so far this year.
Jian Wang, a professor of forest fire ecology and management at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, agrees with Prof. Daniels that the suppression of so many small fires in the past has created dangerous forest conditions.
"We have to fight fires because people's lives, property are at stake," he said. "The premier or the mayor of the town says, 'Put all your resources there,' because they don't want to be blamed by the public. And so that's where the issue is … we have to really start changing our mindset."
Prof. Wang says fighting forest fires isn't wrong, but it has to be seen as a short-term fix.
"It doesn't solve the problem," he said, because when a fire is put out, the forest that survives is extremely dry and still loaded with fuel.
"Focus on managing [forests] instead of fighting fire," he said.
Because of extreme fire events in recent years, many communities across Canada are now following that approach, Kelly Johnston, executive director of FireSmart Canada said.
The non-profit produces guidebooks to help communities become less vulnerable to forest fires.
The organization was formed in 1990 but really began to gain traction after a forest fire destroyed 239 homes in Kelowna in 2003.
"That definitely was a pinnacle moment," Mr. Johnston said.
But he said the high level of concern didn't last. "After 2003, the public was very active [in fireproofing their communities] for about a year and a half, and then after that it died down," he said.
Public interest is rising again this fire season, and Mr. Johnston hopes it lasts.
Jeff Eustache, the forest fuel management program manager for the First Nations' Emergency Services Society of British Columbia, said the FireSmart program has been embraced by many native communities because they are largely surrounded by forests. The program gets people to remove combustible material from around their homes and encourages the use of fire-resistant materials in new construction.