A former wildland firefighter, Kira Hoffman is a fire ecologist and a post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia.
Last week, as our wildfire research team worked in record-breaking temperatures near Fraser Lake, B.C., I watched anxiously as lightning strikes flashed red on my weather-tracking app. Elsewhere in our province’s interior, more than 750,000 lightning strikes were produced by storms, generating more than a hundred new wildfires in a matter of hours. Though it’s only early July, the fire risk is extreme, first responders are already stretched thin – and, tragically, lives, homes and the community of Lytton have been lost.
We urgently need improved methods to reduce wildfire risk in Canada, as the climate warms and large and uncontrollable wildfires now commonly exceed our capacities for fire suppression. We’ve been extinguishing fires in Canada for more than 100 years, and though these efforts save lives, protect property and reduce damage in the short term, many of Canada’s forested areas are now stuck in what fire scientists call a “wildfire suppression trap.” The past century of intensive firefighting has broken crucial natural and cultural (Indigenous practices include managing the land by carefully burning off dead vegetation) fire cycles, leaving too much fuel on the land. Unsurprisingly, we’re now facing more severe and destructive wildfires than ever before, affirming that full-containment fire suppression tactics are often impractical, unsustainable and ecologically detrimental in fire-prone landscapes.
Wildfire is a complex problem because it can be harmful – threatening human lives, property and natural resources – but also beneficial, maintaining the diversity and resilience of landscapes. Canada’s predominant fire suppression approach often disregards preventative and longer-term strategies that support wildfire mitigation, such as forest thinning, fuel removal and regular use of prescribed fire, which is the intentional use of controlled burning to manage landscapes. When used safely, prescribed fire is one of the most effective fuel-reduction tools, providing significant benefits to fire-dependent ecosystems, wildlife and human communities. But it’s also the most controversial and underutilized wildfire mitigation technique – the use of prescribed fire in Western Canada has fallen dramatically in recent decades, despite substantive research revealing long-term positive effects. The reluctance of decision-makers to use prescribed fire stems from a lack of public understanding, largely unfounded fears of air pollution and runaway fires, and a perceived lack of experienced personnel.
Although the overall number of wildfires has decreased in Canada since the 1970s, the average annual area burned has doubled. This trend has coincided with a steady increase in direct fire suppression costs, which have escalated to an average of $1-billion a year since 2014. To put this in context, annual suppression costs exceeding that amount were not expected to occur until the latter half of the 21st century. The five most destructive wildfires in Canadian history based on area burned, properties damaged and the number of people evacuated have all occurred in the past decade. Notably, these wildfires occurred in B.C. and Alberta, provinces with highly aggressive fire suppression policies.
Multiple factors are contributing to this new reality in our forests. Climate change has resulted in warmer and drier summers, longer fire seasons and conditions more conducive to wildfire ignition and spread. At the same time, the accumulation of large amounts of dry and dead fuel – material that, before the era of fire suppression, would have been routinely removed by natural and cultural fires – is intensifying wildfire behaviour, putting firefighters and the communities they protect at even greater risk.
Funding for preventive approaches to wildfire has steadily decreased, and Canada has been slow to evolve fire suppression policies that reflect the best available science and millennia of Indigenous knowledge. Given the vulnerability of Indigenous peoples to the effects of wildfire, and the consequences of uncontrolled wildfire on Indigenous lands, it is more important than ever to have Indigenous experiences and voices partnering on wildfire strategies that are both effective and socially just.
As more fires burn out of control, it’s clear that we need to evolve Canada’s approach to wildfire management. Among other changes, this will mean more prescribed fire and Indigenous-led cultural burning, which has long been used to reduce fire effects and enhance the overall health of the land. It will also mean reducing barriers for technical training, educating the public on risk-reduction techniques, and collaborating with communities and regional districts on wildfire mitigation.
Fire suppression will always be critical to protecting communities and resources, and we must recognize and support the first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to protect lives and property. But learning when to suppress fires and when to let them burn will be key to living more safely with fire now and in the future.
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