Mike Wotton is a research scientist at the University of Toronto and Canadian Forest Service. Mike Flannigan is a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta.
Wildfire activity and its impact are increasing around much of the world. We see it on the news every summer now. Different locations (and sometimes the same locations) and different impacts – sometimes terrible, tragic impacts – but everywhere there seems to be wildfire these days, these years. This is the reality and its coming was predictable even several decades ago. And, it will only get worse. The effort we put into adapting to this changed world will influence how easily we co-exist with fire.
Why is fire activity increasing in Canada and other parts of the world? Simply, things have changed. There are more people and their things on the landscape.
People cause more than half of all fires, and fires threaten to burn the things we value, be it homes, infrastructure or beautiful forest views. Lastly, and probably most importantly, weather patterns are changing. Hot, dry, windy conditions – those conducive to fires starting and spreading – are becoming more frequent.
As wildfire will remain a recurring feature in our lives, we have to learn to live with it. To live with it, we must understand it. We have to change our view of fire. It is not the enemy but just a natural process, one that has historically helped maintain many vegetated ecosystems. However, it is at times uncontrollable by even our modern technologies.
During the first decades of the 20th century, large wildfires, both from lightning and from those escaping from land-clearing activities, burned large areas and even led to major community burnovers with considerable fatalities, similar in number to those we see in parts of the world today. The answer then was the formation of provincial fire-management organizations to find and fight those fires and, nationally, the investment in a research program that would provide fire managers the tools to anticipate and better prepare for burning conditions.
That approach has been successful for decades – some might argue too successful, but that is a nuanced discussion for another time. Canadian fire-management agencies are among the best in the world at managing wildfires. The products of Canadian fire science not only inform fire-management activities every day throughout the country, but are used in many different locations around the world to provide early-warning systems.
The challenges presented by increasing wildfire activity will continue to grow. If we desire to maintain our current levels of public safety, we must re-envision how we manage fire in Canada. We will need to look harder for situations where low-risk fires can be allowed to burn unsuppressed, freeing up resources to respond to more imminent threats and letting fire play its natural role. It’s an approach that necessitates taking more, but measured risk, with the end goal of preventing major losses of what we value most. Fire agencies are embracing these ideas, sometimes as part of continuing strategic planning, sometimes as part of necessity.
However, it is an approach that requires fire managers to be equipped with comprehensive and scientifically sound, real-time information for estimating and managing risk in challenging and complex scenarios. It is an approach that can only succeed if we invest in research that focuses on greater understanding of wildfires.
So as we face increased unmanageable wildfire activity in the 21st century, we need, as we did a century ago, public investment (at both the provincial and federal level) in wildfire management and fire research to reduce this risk. What will it take to move us forward? We have seen the Fort McMurray wildfire – the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history – record-breaking years and evacuations across the country, but no significant investment in research. We hope the catalyst for action is not multiple fatalities from wildfires as it was in the past century. The increased risks we face from wildfire will only continue to worsen without significant investment and change.