Peter Kuitenbrouwer is a journalist and registered professional forester who holds a master of forest conservation from the University of Toronto.
A family member travelling in the United States who knows of my passion for forests sent me a baseball cap this spring with an image of Smokey Bear quaffed in his classic ranger hat, and the sombre words “ONLY YOU.” This refers to the famous campaign: “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.”
The gift seemed prophetic; the cap came just before forests caught fire from Nova Scotia to British Columbia in one of our worst fire seasons on record, which sent smoke to blanket big parts of Canada and the U.S. But so far I have not worn the cap, because I wonder whether the whole Smokey Bear public awareness campaign – devised by the U.S. Forest Service, and also adopted in parts of Canada – is at its core misplaced. Yes, we should be careful to not light forest fires. But the campaign also taught us and our kids that all forest fires are bad. That is not true. In fact some argue that a century of forest-fire suppression in the U.S. and Canada has left our forests full of fuel (such as dead trees), making them extremely flammable.
One study suggested that about half the forest fires in Canada stem from natural causes, i.e. lightning; Le Devoir reports that lightning ignited most of Quebec’s forest fires this year. Forest fires are not just a natural occurrence; they are necessary for regeneration of forests. Jack pine, for example, a main species in Canada’s boreal forests immortalized in a painting by Tom Thomson, bears a serotinous cone, which only opens to release its seeds when subjected to heat of about 60 C; the burnt soil on which they fall helps the seeds to thrive. Canada’s forest industry justifies clear-cuts on Crown land by explaining that they emulate natural disturbances on the landscape, such as fires. First Nations have burned forests to manage them since time immemorial.
So fire is okay? Yes and no. We must always fight to control fires that threaten our communities. Those battling forest fires right now are heroes. My heart goes out to the families of firefighters who have lost their lives. So how do we balance these risks in our forests? We need to climb out of what Montana forest researchers Stephen Arno and James K. Brown, writing in 1991 in the journal Western Wildlands, called the paradox of managing wildland fire, meaning that our instinct to suppress the fires once naturally common across North American forests has resulted in hazardous fuel accumulations. They note: “Despite huge expenditures, fire control efforts can do little with severe fires in dense fuels.”
Our management of forests has certainly contributed to today’s wildfire problems, but let’s not miss the forest for the trees. A principal cause is undoubtedly climate change. Humankind’s insatiable thirst to consume oil and gas has heated our planet and made forests a lot drier and more likely to catch fire. A 2019 article in the journal Progress in Disaster Science, whose lead author was Dr. Cordy Tymstra, a consultant who was at the University of Alberta, offered the following rather grim forecast: “The projected impacts of climate change include longer wildfire seasons, increasing fire weather severity, increasing wildfire occurrence, and increasing fire intensity and area burned. Under low and high climate change scenarios, suppression costs are projected to increase by 60 percent and 199 percent respectively.”
So what can we do? Our governments must legislate a faster transition from fossil fuels. We can also change our approach to wildfires. We need to let some forests burn when they don’t threaten communities. The Ontario government’s current forest-fire management policy notes, “Wildland fire is an important natural disturbance in Ontario’s forests and grasslands.” Along with preventing and responding to wildland fires, the policy supports “using wildland fires and prescribed burns to meet objectives such as ecological sustainability, resource management and risk reduction.”
A few years ago, the U.S. Forest Service piloted a new approach to fire in three of California’s national forests. In zones not near towns and roads, if lightning causes a fire, rangers must justify why they are putting it out. If there is no danger to people or homes, they may let the fire burn, but warn that locals may have to increase their tolerance to some smoke. In B.C. and Alberta, for example, fire officials say they will let fires burn as long as they don’t threaten people, infrastructure, habitat or timber values. In Alberta, many wildfires threaten oil and gas infrastructure. Officials in these cases face pressure to extinguish natural fires that would have burned in the forests in the time before European settlement.
Municipalities can play a role, too. Ten years ago, Logan Lake, near Kamloops in the B.C. Interior, became the first FireSmart community in B.C. To “FireSmart” the town, Logan Lake hires high-school students for the summer to control the fuel load on Crown forest land near the community: The students trim trees, pick up dried fuel and manage controlled burns. Talk about a cool summer job: You even get to burn stuff. Whistler, B.C., which is in a forest, has followed Logan Lake’s lead, with its own “fuel thinning” FireSmart program, which involves removing vegetation on both public and private property to reduce the chance of a fire.
But one size of forest-fire management in Canada does not fit all. Chilliwack, B.C.-based fire ecologist Robert Gray points out that Whistler lies in a transitional zone with both steep, rocky, dry forests that catch fire easily, and moist valley-bottom forests that historically have rarely burned, so management differs across Whistler by ecotype. He suggests possibly converting the moist forests to hardwoods such as poplar, birch, cottonwood and maple, which are less flammable.
FireSmart efforts to protect communities near forests have spread across Canada. David Martell, a professor emeritus of forestry at the University of Toronto, summarizes the strategy as follows: “If a fire comes over the hill towards your community, here is what you should do to reduce the possibility that it will ignite your home.”
Once communities have undergone this sort of fire protection, there is a greater opportunity to allow and even to use wildfire as a forest-management technique. Dr. Tymstra writes in favour of “strategically allowing more managed wildfire on the landscape,” noting, “If wildfires and prescribed burns function as effective fuel treatments, they can have a regulatory effect on the occurrence of subsequent wildfires.” Let the forest periodically burn, and we mitigate the danger of cataclysmic infernos. The forest-products industry may have to accept that some of the trees it wishes to harvest will burn; over the longer term, allowing more wildfire will make our forests more stable and thus increase their productivity.
Controlled burns, however, do not always turn out as planned. In May in Banff National Park, a crew lit a fire, a standard practice that Parks Canada says helps maintain good habitat for elk, moose, sheep, deer, wolves and bears. In this case, though, the wind shifted and the blaze jumped the highway, forcing resort visitors and livestock to evacuate the area. Crews, including five helicopters, battled the blaze and eventually got the flames under control.
This summer, my friends and family have called and texted from the States, in shock after smoke from Canada’s forest fires blanketed New York State and Pennsylvania, among other places. “Are you guys okay?” they asked. Answer: No, our forests are not okay. If we FireSmart our communities, allow some wildfire and use some prescribed burns, we will help our forests and make the woods a healthy home for Smokey Bear, and for us.