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Business Commentary It’s time to implement a long-dormant plan for managing wildfires

Once again a wildfire has ravaged a Canadian community, once again Canadians have expressed shock and once again, the event will likely be characterized as a one-off that couldn't have been foreseen or prepared for. Soon, it may fade into Canadians' collective memories like last season's Stanley Cup playoffs – the next time we hear about wildfire will be during another so-called one-off, and the hand-wringing and discussions will start anew.

Before Fort McMurray, Canada had been hit with just two modern large-scale wildfire-loss events, in which an out-of-control wildfire "got into town," triggering tens of millions in damage, long-term disruption and great amounts of grief.

The 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire in Kelowna, B.C. (238 homes lost at a cost to insurers of $243.6-million), and the May, 2011, fire in Slave Lake, Alta. (484 homes, with insured losses of $775-million), were also viewed as one-offs (valued here in 2014 dollars).

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But those of us who work in the realm of natural-catastrophe research know better.

Mike Flannigan, a top Canadian fire researcher, has described the Fort McMurray wildfire as a game-changer in the way that fires are managed in Canada. Indeed, it should be.

The questions are whether it will be, and where or how the change begins.

Last year, Canada's four western provinces each experienced very active wildfire seasons, with each exceeding their wildfire suppression budgets early on. A few homes were lost (in places such as Rock Creek, B.C.), and at least one other (La Ronge, Sask.) came close to facing a wildfire disaster of its own.

Over the long term, there are many cases of Canadian communities dodging such bullets, but every so often, one gets away. We haven't seen the losses experienced in such places as Australia and the United States, but the disconcerting fact is that the conditions that exist in such places as Southern California and Colorado also exist in many parts of Canada. And while there may be few northern communities the size of Fort McMurray, there are hundreds of Slave Lakes.

The message that must be underscored is that several factors are converging to create a perfect storm of sorts, and numerous stakeholders – including disaster managers, first responders, insurers, homeowners and policy makers – need to quickly get on side in order to head off a potentially bleak future of more, and larger, wildland/urban interface fires in Canada.

The good news is that the starting point for changing the game is hiding in plain sight.

In 2004, in Haines Junction, Yukon, the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers (CCFM) identified the need for a new, strategic approach to wildland fire management, based on a risk-management framework. The council created an assistant deputy minister-level task group and charged it with the development of the Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy.

In 2005, at the CCFM meeting in Saskatoon, the ministers signed the CWFS Declaration, expressing their unanimous commitment to a new common vision, shared principles and a proposed path of action to enhance wildland fire management across the country. It was then that the ministers agreed to a 50-50 split of the costs to implement the strategy, which was to receive $230-million annually for up to 10 years.

The strategy focuses on the following four objectives:

  • Public education and policy/risk analysis related to wildland fires;
  • Support for FireSmart programs designed to reduce risks associated with the interface between wildland and urban areas;
  • Emergency preparedness and response capability;
  • Multidisciplinary innovation intended to bolster decision support systems.

The bad news is that the Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy has largely languished since 2005. As a result, the plan has only been implemented on a piecemeal basis, with some jurisdictions taking more action than others.

The strategy does not have to be developed – it is done and ready. The federal, provincial and territorial governments must simply carry the plan forward.

How many more times can we label large, damaging wildfires as flukes before we take decisive action to better manage this hazard now and into the future?

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Fort McMurray should be a game-changer for forest fire management in Canada. Will we allow it to be?

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