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When Lynn Johnston was in grad school in the mid-2010s, no one had ever mapped the vast danger zones across Canada where towns and cities bump up against forests and other land susceptible to wildfires.

This wildland-urban interface is where wildfires cause the most costly destruction. Ms. Johnston’s research found that about 4 per cent of all land across the country is in the interface – which, despite the desire to live close to forests, is an obvious vulnerability. Wildfires may seem overwhelming, says Ms. Johnston, now a Canadian Forest Service scientist, but “there’s just as many options for … adapting to fire.”

The previous absence of a national interface map is typical of Canada’s many data gaps but creating one is also an example of Ms. Johnston’s optimism, what must be done to prepare for an era in which the lashings of, and damages from, a hotter climate shift from rare to commonplace.

Canada has to move from an ad hoc, province-by-province response to one that is much better co-ordinated, and ready for decades of wildfires ahead. Start with a bolstered Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. Established in 1982, the centre helps provinces share resources and information. What could be of greater benefit for wildfires and deluges such as flooding would be a Canadian version of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In preparing for bigger wildfires more often, the focus on the wildland-urban interface is essential. Two decades ago, British Columbia was ravaged by fires, the Interior city of Kelowna especially so. Much of the urban area is in the interface and, in 2003, more than 200 homes were destroyed or damaged. A report for the province the next year focused on the interface, with proposals from amended land-use plans to work on eliminating “fuel,” all the fallen trees and brush that serves as kindling.

That sort of work is expensive and slow-going. Fifteen years after the Kelowna fire, a B.C. program to clean up fuel in the interface hadn’t even address 1 per cent of high-risk areas, according to a 2018 B.C. Auditor-General report on managing climate change risks. The report pegged the total bill for cleaning up the interface in B.C. at $6.7-billion.

It is a daunting cost – but so is the cost of inaction. The 2016 Fort McMurray fire produced insurance losses of $3.6-billion, the highest in Canadian history, and nine of the 10 years with the most insured losses have all happened since 2011. It will makes things harder to insure: In May, the largest home insurer in California, State Farm, said it wouldn’t offer new policies there – citing “rapidly growing catastrophe exposure.”

Adaptation to climate heating, and wildfires specifically, can produce valuable returns. According to a Canadian Climate Institute report last fall, every $1 invested in adaptation could generate $5 of avoided damages, such as replacing infrastructure, and $6 of broader economic benefits.

The same sort of calculus has been made for flood preparations. And like flooding, what is built where (land use) and how it is built (building codes) are important measures against wildfires. Only a small number of cities have undertaken this work. Rules should include restrictions on building in high-risk interface zones, fire-resilient materials for new homes, and “defensible space” around homes free of fuels for fires.

Ottawa has a central role. Last November, it put out an initial National Adaptation Strategy that included $1.6-billion in spending for everything from fires to floods, and preliminary goals, such as ensuring that at least 60 per cent of Canadians are aware of the disaster risks facing their homes by 2025. Too often, people don’t realize they’re at risk until it’s too late. Ottawa is also reforming the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements, created in 1970, which has become “de facto insurance” even as cities allow development in high-risk areas.

And while the $1.6-billion might sound like a lot, look again at California, where the state in 2021 outlined US$2-billion just for wildfires.

The list of further actions goes on: more firefighters; monitoring fire and smoke from space, to begin in 2029; and a concerted effort to deploy the use of prescribed burns. That’s fighting fire with fire – setting smaller controlled blazes to minimize the sprawl of larger ones.

Governments across Canada have to confront the new reality of a country on fire and change quickly from a reactive stance to one of smarter preparation, on a nationwide basis.

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