Toddie Steelman is executive director and professor, School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan; and co-director, Firechasers Project, North Carolina State University.
Hey Canada! Mother Nature is calling. She wants you to know that climate change is real, and she is going to kick your butt with another bad fire season unless you wake up and smell the smoke.
Nearly four million hectares have burned so far this year in Canada – close to double the average season. Record numbers of people were forced to move in Saskatchewan. British Columbia experienced its warmest winter and spring to date since 1948, when temperatures were first regularly recorded, and has battled 1,400 wildfires this season so far; 10 per cent are still burning. Alberta called on firefighters from Mexico, New Zealand, Australia and the United States for help. August is typically a very active fire month, so we aren't out of the frying pan yet.
The wildfires across Western Canada are entirely consistent with what climate-change models have predicted for boreal forests. Wildfires will burn more intensely over more hectares. Wildfire season is predicted to last longer. And Canada isn't alone: This is a global phenomenon. Mega-fires, those that result in significant economic and social damage, are also increasing in Russia, the United States, Asia and Australia.
This is a wake-up call for us to learn to co-exist with wildfire.
Wildfire is one of the only natural hazards that we believe we can control. We would never try to stop a tornado, hurricane or earthquake. So why do we think we can control wildfire, especially as it increases in intensity? Wildfire professionals are confirming that they are encountering wildfire behaviour never before witnessed. In ignoring these realities, we put more people at risk, spend more money and do a disservice to the ecological systems that need wildfire to be healthy.
Canada needs a more sustainable wildfire-management strategy – one that would not only consider what is needed in the next fire season, but also anticipate what is needed in the next 20 fire seasons.
What would this look like? At the community level, it would firmly embrace the need to mitigate, prepare, respond and recover. Communities need to adapt to living with fire. That means not just spending more to respond to fire, but spending more to mitigate the risks before they occur.
This includes reducing the risk of building near places where forests and communities meet, establishing fuel breaks around communities, working with local emergency responders ahead of fire season to anticipate evacuation needs and creating fire-adapted landscapes around homes. Using fire-resistant materials in home construction and making informed decisions about why and how to live in a hazardous area also would be part of an effective pro-active plan.
At the provincial and federal level, it would mean taking a hard look at our assumptions that underlie how we are currently preparing for, and responding to, wildfire. Officials need to rethink what kind of strategic and program investments to make in the face of changing fire environments due to climate change. How much active fire management do we want to undertake under what conditions? What kinds of risks do we want to take, including those that affect our firefighters? What kind of work force is necessary to carry out a capable response, while also learning to live more adaptively with wildfire?
The phone is ringing and Mother Nature is on the line. Don't let it go to voice mail.