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toddi steelman

Toddi Steelman is executive director and professor, School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan

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Wildfire management in Canada is at a crossroads. The tragedy under way in Fort McMurray, Alta., with the loss of an estimated 2,400 structures and the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, will be the largest and costliest wildfire disaster in Canadian history.

In 2003, fires in Kelowna, B.C., left more than 200 homes destroyed and about 30,000 people evacuated. In May of 2011, fires devastated Slave Lake, Alta., with the loss of 510 homes and a cost of $700-million. Last year more than 13,000 people were evacuated in Saskatchewan because of fires. What can we do about it?

The United States has been dealing with large wildland interface fires for decades, so there may be a temptation to move more in the direction of that country in fighting wildfires. In many respects, this would be a mistake.

In the United States, a wildfire industrial complex wakens each year and is fed by up to $4-billion (U.S.) in federal funds annually. The country has 13 incident-management teams at the ready to fight the largest and most complex fires, with fleets of aircraft, troops and heavy equipment. It is a costly model that is mainly effective at protecting people and property, and probably perpetuates the wildfire problem by putting out too many fires that could have a positive ecological effect on the landscape.

What would be more effective would be to draw from the U.S. experience, but only those aspects that would work in a Canadian context. For example, there may be value in establishing an elite team that is available across Canada that can build experience in managing complex interface fires.

The changing face of wildfire management demands a uniquely Canadian approach. Fortunately, this country's fire-management community developed the Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy in 2005. Unfortunately, this strategy has languished, mostly unfunded, and has been implemented in piecemeal fashion since that time. It is time for the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, in collaboration with the federal government, to resurrect this strategy and breathe new life into it.

The strategy provides direction on how Canada can better co-exist with wildfire. Key principles remain as relevant now as they were a decade ago. These include placing greater responsibility on communities to become more active in their preparedness for wildfire and in planning for how to respond to wildfire disasters.

Drawing on lessons from the U.S. experience with interface fires, this would entail more active emergency management in anticipation of a wildfire event. Forming strong relationships in advance among key responding organizations – local fire agencies, law enforcement, animal shelters, utilities, emergency managers and local governments – can go a long way toward being ready for a fire when it happens.

Practising evacuation and road closings, familiarizing civilian personnel with incident command systems and working on public information plans in advance can result in clearer, collective expectations for disaster when it happens.

If communities anticipate wildfire, they could do more to prepare their landscape to be more fire ready. The boreal forest wants to burn catastrophically – that is part of its ecology.

However, unlike in the southwestern United States or other places where fuel treatments can create breaks that help with fire management, a running crown fire in a boreal forest will likely not be stopped. This is what we are witnessing in Fort McMurray.

But fuel breaks can buy a bit of time to allow for evacuation, especially if people are prepared and ready to leave. And houses and properties that are made fire safe are more likely to survive when ash and embers descend as the fire approaches; provincial and territorial grants, with federal matching funds, could finance part of this work.

The goal is to create fire-resilient communities. This would be a uniquely Canadian model, drawing lessons from its southern neighbour, offering the best fire-management option for us to co-exist with wildfires.

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