Kira Hoffman is a fire ecologist at the University of British Columbia and a former wildland firefighter.
Last Friday, as my son blew out his birthday candles on the back deck, I looked out at thunderheads building over the mountains southwest of Smithers, B.C.
It was hard not to feel anxious. After the hottest and driest spring on record, the forests of northwestern British Columbia were a perfectly built campfire of dry pine. They were primed to burn, and I knew any lightning strike could be a match.
A few minutes later, lightning flashed onto a ridge a few kilometres away. Within minutes, fire was spreading along the hillside as trees burst into flame.
News travels fast in small towns, and it wasn’t long before I started getting texts from friends and neighbours asking if they were in danger and if they might need to evacuate. Despite the media coverage wildfires have received across Canada this year, many in our community still seemed surprised by how fast a fire could grow, and that this time it could be their own homes in danger.
We’re in the midst of Canada’s worst-ever wildfire season. In B.C., the Donnie Creek fire has now burned an area larger than Prince Edward Island. Alberta has seen multiple interface fires, destroying more than 100 buildings in the community of Fox Lake. More than 200 structures burned in the suburbs of Halifax.
At the same time, wildfires in Quebec and Ontario have generated record emissions, sending hundreds to hospital with breathing issues as thick plumes of smoke reached into the United States and across the Atlantic to Europe. The community of Norman Wells in the Northwest Territories experienced record-shattering temperatures of 37.9 C, a temperature hotter than Ottawa has ever experienced. On a global scale, our planet experienced its hottest day ever for seven consecutive days earlier this month.
In the midst of it all, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. Wildfire risk continues to be extreme across much of Canada. As I write this, crews are working around the clock to control the fire that started near Smithers last week, and there’s still not a drop of rain in the forecast.
In our current reality, almost no Canadian community is safe from wildfires or their cascading consequences. This season is confirming something we’ve observed over the past decade – that wildfires are now commonly exceeding our capacity for suppression.
Despite this, we continue to put the vast majority of funds into reactive fire responses, such as fire suppression, and fail to invest enough in pro-active management efforts that would reduce wildfire severity. We will always need fire suppression to protect lives, infrastructure and resources, but Canada’s predominant approach to wildfires too often disregards longer-term strategies such as forest thinning, fuel removal, and the regular use of prescribed and cultural fire at the landscape scale.
Most provinces also continue to apply static management to dynamic landscapes such as protected areas, which makes them more vulnerable to wildfires. In the past five years, Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, B.C.’s largest protected area, lost almost half (500,000 hectares) of its forest to extreme wildfires. As I write this, four of my old-growth fire research sites in the park are burning. Although the management approach of most protected areas is to let natural disturbances such as wildfires occur, our forests are full of dry and dead fuels – a legacy of a century of fire suppression, combined with the exclusion of Indigenous fire stewardship.
Wildfires truly know no borders. They are everyone’s problem. To match the scale of these fires, we need everyone to help implement solutions. By increasing funds for pro-active fire management, we can employ a diverse range of people, from tech to the trades, to help make our forests and communities more resilient. By supporting Indigenous-led stewardship, we can learn from countless generations that have co-existed with fire. By increasing the public’s understanding of wildfires, from school curriculums to FireSmart programs, we can ensure people are prepared and aren’t packing in a rush when the time comes to go. And by making climate-aware choices in our everyday lives, we can help mitigate the large-scale trends that are creating more extreme wildfires.
There’s no single solution to our current wildfire crisis. But as firefighters continue to work through an exhausting season, there are ways that we can all work together to better live with fire today and into the future.