Take a walk into a Canadian forest. Soak up the quiet. Draw in the smell of the woods. It feels like pure nature. That, however, is a false impression.
Canada’s forests may seem entirely “natural,” but after generations of logging and fire suppression, the human influence on their makeup is distinct. Research on forests in British Columbia shows that in centuries past, small- to moderate-size fires were common every several decades. Underbrush and deadfall on the forest floor would burn away, but many trees would survive. Fire contributed to a forest’s overall health.
Canada’s forests have not been in a natural state for a long time. Fire suppression has led to forests full of deadfall, which is basically kindling. The trees are mostly from a short list of human-planted varieties – spruce, pine, fir – that are valuable for lumber, yet vulnerable to fire. The result is forests susceptible to massive blazes.
This summer, fires are raging across North America. What was formerly less common is now an annual event, and what was often contained to one region is now widespread. In B.C., fires are burning fast. In four days, from Wednesday through Saturday, the amount of land burned jumped 27 per cent, to 3,940 square kilometres. Evacuation orders climbed to 4,400 properties from 3,100. People living far beyond the forests feel it. The air in Toronto last Monday was briefly among the most polluted on Earth, as smoke billowed down from fires in Northwestern Ontario.
The compounding effects of climate heating worsen the situation. Temperature is higher and dry conditions are more common, making fire seasons longer. Research from Thompson Rivers University shows that wildfires are burning twice as much forest compared with a half-century ago. Models suggest the amount of forest burned will double again in the decades to come. And that’s actually an optimistic forecast.
Problem is supersized fires – made possible by the way humans have shaped the forests. Only a few very large fires are to blame for almost all the forest burned in North America.
To limit and control those blazes, the idea of cleaning up the forests has come to the fore. In May, the Biden administration announced a plan to at least double the annual work to “treat” forests. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture worked on 10,700 square kilometres of forest. To put that in perspective, a record 40,000 square kilometres burned in 2020 – including about 16,000 in California. The USDA said modelling indicates it “must increase the scale” of its work. Beyond cleaning out deadfall, the USDA said prescribed burns – planned small-scale fires – are also part of its plans. It may sound counterintuitive, but starting smaller fires can lessen the likelihood of big ones.
In California, Governor Gavin Newsom announced US$2-billion in May to combat wildfires. Some of the cash will go to firefighters and their gear – about US$190-million for helicopters, water bombers and more fire crews. But the majority, about US$1.1-billion, will be invested in work that includes thinning overgrown forests, carrying out prescribed burns and establishing 500 “fuel breaks” – cleared land that can wall in major fires. Another idea being tested in California is how to better replant a forest. The logging way has always been to plant trees in evenly spaced rows, to maximize crop growth. Some are now arguing for trees to be planted in clusters, leaving natural gaps.
The scale of California’s investment should put Canada on alert. In B.C., more money is going to wildfires, yet the investment remains too timid. B.C. budgets $136-million a year for fire management, double the amount of several years ago. But in the worst fire years, actual spending is far higher. In 2017, it hit $650-million.
It shows that B.C. should be doing more. For example, the province has been criticized for being too reticent to use prescribed burns. Investing today may pay off in better fire control in the future, but it doesn’t make the upfront cost any less daunting. A 2018 B.C. Auditor-General report on managing climate-change risks estimated that cleaning up forests filled with “hazardous fuels” – all that flammable deadfall – could cost nearly $7-billion.
Widespread wildfires have become too common, as a result of decades of decisions around fire suppression, logging and replanting, made worse by the punch of climate heating. Forest fires cannot be prevented. But tools are available to mitigate and contain the damage.
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