Although the number of wildfires across the country has slowly decreased over the years, the fires themselves are becoming more severe. One reason, forestry experts say, is that we’ve gotten too good at turning them off.
Climate change, bringing us longer, hotter and drier seasons, is also driving the increase in intensity. But part of the problem, said forestry expert Kira Hoffman, is that fire is no longer our friend.
Where before we let wildfires burn if they did not threaten a community or infrastructure, and where before indigenous peoples practiced cultural burning (fires around habitation sites for safety and resource management), decades ago the needle tipped toward suppression. of fires.
The result: today’s fires find themselves with much more fuel to burn.
“There’s this kind of big shift that happens in the 1930s, where we started to think of fire as a real enemy,” said Hoffman, a postdoctoral researcher in fire ecology at the University of British Columbia.
“(But) a lot of our forests need fire to survive and thrive and be really healthy. And I don’t think people really understood that very well in the past, except the indigenous people who always knew.”
Indigenous cultural burning was prohibited by the Forest Law in the 1930s. From then on, the trend in forest fire management was to suppress fires.
And as techniques and equipment have improved, many fires are now fought with air support and water bombers, we have become more efficient at controlling and extinguishing those fires.
The ’10 a.m. policy’
To be fair, the provinces have adopted different policies on fire management. In British Columbia and Alberta, where there are logging concerns as far north as the NWT border, containment policies lean heavily toward trying to put out all fires. Hoffman calls it the “10 am policy,” where the goal is to control a fire by 10 am the day after it is detected.
In fact, as of August 11, the Canadian Forest Fire Information System’s fire map showed that most of the fires still burning in those regions were listed as “Under Control” or “Hold”. However, across the border in NWT, most of the fires were designated “out of control.” The same applies to the fires in northern Saskatchewan and northern Manitoba.
The result of that overly efficient fire suppression, Hoffman said, has essentially been tinder stockpiling for decades in the nation’s forests.
“We’re dealing with a major backlog in fuel buildup.,” she said. “We’ve been putting out fires so successfully for the last hundred years, we have a buildup of those dry, dead fuels that are getting denser in our forests, and then we’re having bigger fire events.”
At first glance, it seems difficult to argue that we are too efficient at suppressing wildfires.
In Newfoundland, four active fires were burning in the central part of the island late last week, with smoke causing serious air quality problems. Prime Minister Andrew Furey declared a state of emergency, since lifted, advising residents of nearby communities to prepare for a possible 24-hour mandatory evacuation order.
It is, government officials said, the worst fire season in Newfoundland in 60 years.
The Canadian Interagency Wildfire Center listed 448 active fires across the country as of August 11. Of those, the vast majority, 281, were in Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Alberta and BC, between them, had 102 fires. And there were 36 fires burning in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
That all sounds dire enough, but the rest of the country, Ontario and points east except Newfoundland, are largely being spared from active wildfires.
For the country as a whole, the 3,067 fires that have been identified so far this season represent just 71 percent of the 10-year average for this point in the season.
Data from Natural Resources Canada for the past 31 years shows that overall the number of fires per year has decreased slightly. But, significantly, the burned area has increased slightly.
“If you go back to the 1980s, maybe even the 1990s, you will see some big spikes where there really is a large area burned, but often they are followed by three, four or five years with a very small area burned. . said Richard Carr, a wildfire research analyst for Natural Resources Canada.
“But what we’re seeing now is more of those areas that are stacked together with an above-average burned area,” he said. “We’re looking at fewer years with really small totals. Climatological studies have shown that the annual area burned will likely end up doubling sometime this century.”
And we’re seeing fires in places, like Nunavut and Vancouver Island, where we’ve rarely seen them before, Carr said.
Fewer fires, more damage
Part of the reason is climate change. Changes in weather patterns have meant higher temperatures and less precipitation, leading to a dry landscape. Fires start more easily. And decades of firefighting have left more fuel to burn.
We are also seeing indications that fires caused by lightning (currently around 50-50 across the country along with humans as the leading cause of wildfires) will increase in frequency over the years.
A thunderstorm over Vancouver Island last Wednesday morning produced more than 800 lightning strikes on the island, sparking 10 new fires. And in Newfoundland, all four active fires were started by lightning, a phenomenon more common in Labrador, three of them on the same day.
“Our lightning data sets aren’t very old and sensors and locations keep changing, so we can’t say for sure yet, but the principle ‘a warmer world should have more lightning’ seems reasonable,” Mike said. Flannigan, a wildfire specialist and professor at Thompson Rivers University.
A 2015 study by Berkeley researchers published in Science in 2014, predicted a 12 percent increase in lightning strikes in the continental US for every degree rise in global average air temperature.
As climate change creates a warmer atmosphere, vegetation, the fuel for wildfires, becomes drier. And there’s more, which means any given lightning bolt has a higher chance of starting a fire.
Both fire management policies and climate change have created the scenario in which we currently live: that although there are fewer fires, they cause more damage; and that those lightning-caused fires, which we cannot control have the ability to start fires in historically unusual places, are likely to increase in number.
The needle has just begun to recede. Hoffman, the UBC expert, said there is a big push to become fire-friendly again, to adopt more “modified responses” to fire management.
That may include reducing fuel for future fires by letting some current fires burn out of control.
“I would say that we actually need more controlled fires and more prescribed burning and more support for cultural burning so that we can start to be proactive about how we engage with fire so that we can coexist with fire in a better way,” he said. “So using fire to fight fire, but also using fire to manage the landscape in a way that has been managed for a long, long time.”
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