Robert W. Gray is a B.C.-based wildland fire ecologist specializing in western North American landscape fire ecology. Robin Gregory is senior research scientist at Decision Research and adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia.
Despite the optimism of many elected officials and the tendency of citizens to look for an easy way out of public challenges, there are some things that by their very nature are truly difficult.
In Western Canada, getting ahead of the wildfire crisis is one of these “hard things.” It will take knowledge, political leadership and public support to address its fundamental causes, and to embark on the kind of transformational change necessary to avert a social, environmental and economic disaster. It’s a sharp turn from our current path.
The Canadian public has begun to recognize that our wildfire problems are leading to dramatic, and in some cases irreversible, changes in our landscapes. Areas once forested are now a sea of charred trees. Wildlife habitat, soils and water resources are all degraded. Increasing wildfire activity harms the well-being of citizens and the viability of the forest industry that historically has been a mainstay of Western Canada’s economy.
Nearly everyone, whether living in a rural community or a large urban centre, understands that there is a connection between the fire crisis, smoke-filled summer days, increasing numbers of respiratory illnesses and deaths, and the battle to mitigate climate change.
With so many hectares in Canada and the U.S. now at risk from out-of-control wildfires every fire season, people living in forest-dependent communities are realizing that an important source of economic and social stability is under severe and imminent threat.
Wildfire, insects and overharvest have led to reductions in milling capacity and declines in the forest-sector work force. Mill closures have already occurred and will increase, leading to significant economic and social impacts in rural communities throughout the West: Reduced tax bases, lower standards of living and fewer public services. Communities under such economic pressure are likely to face rising levels of domestic violence and substance abuse.
The crisis is also leading to unprecedented levels of public anger, frustration and distrust toward the forest industry and government institutions. This ranges from public demonstrations against forest-management policy (on such issues as old growth, endangered species, post-wildfire salvage) to dangerous acts of disobedience during wildfires (for example, refusal to evacuate).
How governments responds to this crisis is critical, and they have three main options to consider.
One is to continue to believe that the crisis doesn’t exist – that it will somehow be averted or that only a few minor fixes are needed. This is the “status quo” option, and it fits quite well with our current political discourse: Don’t do anything big unless you absolutely must.
Under this option, provincial ministries will tinker with existing legislation and policy, while continuing to believe in the illusion that Canada is a world leader in sustainable forest management. Governments will apply band-aids as needed, but won’t pursue transformational change.
Wildfire management will benefit from funding for more firefighters and more airplanes to drop fire retardants, such as Ottawa’s $416-million wildfire disaster-relief payments to B.C., and homeowners will receive help to rebuild their homes. Meanwhile, funding for mitigation and prevention will continue at its anemic pace even as the annual average area burned, and the economic, social health and cultural costs of wildfires, continue to climb.
Another option is the “hard landing.” This sees the provincial governments walking away from the forest industry, as it is seen as unproductive and an economic burden to the taxpayer. To lessen the economic and social impacts, the governments may deliver short-term assistance with an emphasis on improving public relations. Transitional programs and opportunities for displaced homeowners and workers will be established, but they will be short-lived and underfunded.
Such hard landings are primarily driven by economic ideology – the reasoning given in hindsight is that “the market” decided an industry was no longer economically viable and progress necessitated a change.
Unfortunately, this scene has played out repeatedly in history: The warnings of a looming crisis go unheeded and the collapse of an important industry leads to social and economic chaos. The fate of the cod fishery in the East Coast is a good example.
This was also the case in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s when steel manufacturing and shipbuilding died in the northeast and the Margaret Thatcher government did little to cushion the blow. Manufacturing in the U.S. “rust belt” experienced a similar hard landing under the Ronald Reagan administration. The forest sector in Western Canada could be headed in the same direction.
Thankfully, there is a third alternative – one that we’ll call the “soft landing” option. In contrast to hard landings, which are characteristically abrupt, unstructured and chaotic, soft landings are gradual, structured and controlled. They incorporate the reality that reducing the threat of, and damage from, wildfires will not happen quickly or without the help of stable, innovative and competitive forest and bioenergy industries.
A soft landing means working at a very large scale – thinking in terms of resilient landscapes rather than single communities – and recreating a diverse ecology that is essentially immune to large, damaging fires.
That means bringing back the open grasslands, retaining the natural hardwood forests of aspen, birch, and cottonwood, encouraging larger riparian areas. It means building on the knowledge of Indigenous stewardship, which over thousands of years had used cultural burning to create a landscape where small fires were common but large fires could not prosper and grow.
It means managing forests for ecological, wildlife, and social and cultural benefits, rather than focusing on economic profits. It means forming long-term partnerships with First Nations and Metis, NGOs and citizen groups and adhering to land-use plans that prioritize stewardship and the many non-monetary benefits of forests over their economic returns. And it means displacing carbon-emitting intensive industries with new harvest and manufacturing methods that store carbon or have a much smaller emissions footprint.
A soft-landing option also requires a commitment on the part of government to industry and the social fabric that it supports. Big government, in tandem with big industry, can take much of the economic, social, and environmental risk out of innovation and experimentation – both necessary for the move to produce carbon-storing technologies and products from low-value biomass. Such a partnership can help facilitate the gradual transition of workers out of the high-carbon emissions industries and into bioenergy jobs.
With adequate advance planning and the support of community leaders, a soft-landing approach can solve the wildfire problem; reduce carbon emissions; stabilize local employment and the tax base of municipalities; generate royalties and tax revenues to the provincial government; and reduce burned area and total fire cost, while helping to make our forests and society more resilient.
What makes the soft landing a “hard thing,” however, is its challenge to contemporary resource-management orthodoxy. It is difficult for politicians and the public to grasp that to be successful, it will cost money and it will take time – several decades at least. And it will require a transformational change in how we manage our forests and a major rearrangement of the forest-based economy.
Yet we’ve committed to an approach seeking quick and cheap solutions that’s divorced from actually solving the problem. We can’t continue to throw millions of dollars a year at fire suppression while investing paltry sums on mitigation and prevention (plus the more we suppress fires, the worse they will eventually become). We can’t insist on fire-hardened homes if we don’t help homeowners invest in proper building materials and maintenance of their properties. We can’t insist on fire-hardened communities if we don’t fire-harden our landscapes at the same time.
There is mounting pressure within and outside government to transition the work force away from careers in Western Canadian forestry. The looming crisis has convinced many it’s a dying industry and not worth salvaging or investing in. But it’s neither wise nor necessary to abandon active forest management. Government needs to stop making self-congratulatory announcements for new programs while doing the bare minimum and kicking the real issues down the road.
Reducing the threat and damage from wildfires and mitigating climate change can be achieved, but not without stable, innovative and competitive forest and bioenergy industries. This is the soft landing that Western Canada needs. With a mix of political resolve and public support, it’s the solution that this generation could pass on to the next.
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