Wildfires are again raging in Western Canada. Late last week, smoke blanketed much of Alberta, and the air-quality index fell into dangerous territory. An acrid, orange-grey pall hung over Edmonton. Some 11,000 Albertans were forced to evacuate their homes; many have not yet been allowed to return. As of Tuesday, six major fires were burning almost 6,800 square kilometres of Alberta forest – an area larger than Prince Edward Island.
Such calamities have become an annual event in the West. Three years ago, Fort McMurray burned; insured losses were $3.7-billion in total, the most expensive disaster in Canadian history. The following summer, 12,000 square kilometres of British Columbia’s forests burned, a provincial record. The record was broken the next summer, when 13,500 square kilometres burned.
A report for the Alberta government prepared after the Fort McMurray fire concluded that wildfire season is starting earlier and lasting longer, stretches of extreme wildfire hazard are becoming more frequent and the intensity of blazes is worsening. A report from B.C.'s auditor-general said last year that climate change is also a factor: As temperatures rise, so will the risk of wildfires.
And yet, governments are not rising to the challenge. B.C.'s auditor-general concluded that the province’s efforts to mitigate and prevent blazes “have not been sufficient to substantially reduce the fire risk.”
Provincial governments in Western Canada can do more. A range of ready options are available, from spending more to fight fires to doing more to prevent them from spreading.
On the funding front, B.C. is among the provinces that has long refused to face the reality of firefighting costs. In years past, the actual bill would come in at several hundred million dollars annually – with the province reliably budgeting just $63-million. After costs exceeded $600-million in both 2017-18 and 2018-19, the province finally upped its budget to $101-million. The figure is still too low.
On the prevention front, B.C. still lags in following through on a key recommendation from a report prepared after the severe fires of 2003. Former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon called for focusing on where forests meet populated areas – the so-called interface.
The idea is to create a buffer zone, reducing the fuel available to feed wildfires in the interface. The work is laborious – and expensive. B.C. has increased annual spending on wildfire prevention to $20-million, but the auditor-general estimated last year that the cost of treating all the high-risk forest areas in the province at close to $7-billion.
One underused and less expensive prevention tool is prescribed burns – starting fires to stop fires. It involves setting controlled blazes, basically pre-empting a wildfire. The technique is controversial and often unpopular, as it can mean creating smoke near towns and cities.
But the forests of Western Canada are not in a natural state because of decades of industrial forestry that have led to an overabundance of combustible, harvestable trees like spruce, pine and fir, and an absence of trees more resistant to fires, such as aspen. Controlled burns work with nature’s need for fires, instead of fighting it.
A B.C. report last year suggested that prescribed burns in the 1980s and early 1990s – used to clear areas for tree planting, as well as for hazard reduction – appeared to correlate with years of modest wildfires. Prescribed burns thereafter became uncommon and incidences of wildfires shot up. The report concluded the absence of prescribed burns is likely one of the “key factors contributing to a recent dramatic increase in unwanted wildfires.”
There’s also a human factor in the mix. People, not lightning strikes, caused the majority of Alberta wildfires over the past decade. Last year in B.C., more than one-quarter of fires were caused by people. Basic carelessness has high costs.
Last week, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney dismissed a question on the connection between eliminating the carbon tax on individuals and the risk of wildfires, by saying fires have always happened. That’s true, but it dodges the new challenge of the scale and severity of today’s fires.
A lot of people live in or near fire zones, and we have made our farmed forests less fire-resistant, thanks to what we have chosen to plant. Climate change threatens to supercharge the problem. Faced with such an acute threat, provincial governments must fight back with equal intensity.