The hot topic of today are the flames that rip and burn through BC. Fires consume the forests, roads are shut-down and the province is in a state of crisis. But in all the crisis, I've got to ask: where's the fire?
And no, it's not a question of where are the forests burning, but rather "what's the big deal?"
I understand such a statement can be inflammatory but bear with me a lets take a stroll through wildfire alley together.
This season is undoubtedly a challenging fire season. A lot is burning, large numbers of people have had to be evacuated and major routes are closed all around the province. A lot of resources are being placed to put-out and control our fires to prevent their spread. Maybe we're on track for one of the most severe fire seasons on record? Well, we won't know that for sure until the summer totals are counted later in the fall.
Nonetheless, lets take a look at some statistics, specifically 2003 which was considered one of the worst fire seasons in recent history:
- The largest evacuation in BC history was in 2003 with over 30,000 evacuated
- 10,000 firefighters and 375 million dollars were implemented to suppress the fires
- 265,000 hectares burnt
- 3 fatalities (2 air tanker crew members and a helicopter pilot)
So far this year, though unofficial, the tally shows ~491,000 hectares have burnt so far, over 30,000 have been evacuated and it's only early August. Still 428,00 hectares are designated as "out of control" so we're definitely on track for breaking big records. So how much is BC burning this year?
British Columbia consists of 95 million hectares, of which, 55 million is forested. So far this year, with half a million hectares burnt, that means 0.91% of all the forests in BC have burnt so far. This is likely a record breaking season but if every year half a million hectares of unburnt forests went up in flames like this year, it would take a staggering 110 years to burn every last piece of forest in BC.
BC is a province of nearly 5 million people amongst the 95 million hectares. That's approximately 1 human per every 19 hectares. When compared to Japan in 2008' s average of 64 people for every 19 hectares were not doing so bad.
Given that more than half of BC's population is located in the Soutwest most corner of BC, we've manged to spread ourselves thinly over much of the rest of the province with our towns, summer cottages, etc. And given that more than half of BC is forested, it's a no wonder that forest fires are a threat.
So are we to blame the fires for the threat they place on our homes? If one were to build a home in an avalanche path, do we blame the avalanche for destroying the house? Do we blame the grizzly for attacking the hiker who misshapenly surprised the bear in its own forest backyard?
We have to re-evaluate where we put our cottages, or re-evaluate our expectations of the consequences of our ways of living in North America.
In all these record breaking fires we have no-one to blame but ourselves.
There is legitimacy behind the fear of forest fire spreading out of control.
Lets look at the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, the burning of Fort McMurray in 2016 which cost nearly 3.6 billion dollars in damages to an unprepared town when a 500,000+ hectare fire burnt out-of-control towards an urban center.
Fire suppression helps to safeguard our homes from wildfires, but it won't help against fires that range large and out of control. Fire fighting is dangerous. In Canada there have been 61 fatalities from workers suppressing fires in the last 70 years. Conversely, it's hard to find much data on civilian casualties due to forest fires. There are few. We're good at evacuating and many of our fires fires happen in remote places. Without fire suppression, more lives might have been lost. However, fire suppression is a dangerous and very expensive band-aid that keeps getting more costly and it's getting harder to control the fires.
375 million dollars was spent on putting out forest fires in 2003 alone. How much is spent each year on safeguarding our infrastructure from forest fires?
Water tanks, fire suppression sprinklers, concrete barriers, hazardous tree removal, pre-emptive controlled burning, are all examples of such infrastructural and preventative measures. I argue the amount of money placed into prevention and safeguarding is inadequate and the result is scrambling with thousands of firefighters and millions of dollars to prevent more Fort McMurrary fires.
We've also built our homes and structures in the middle of avalanche paths, so to speak, with the expectation that it wouldn't be destroyed.
Which city or town needs to be next before investment is heavily placed on infrastructure to defend from forest fires or before we re-evaluate how we build our urban areas?
Forest fire suppression is costly in the lives of Canadian firefighters and in ~1 billion dollars per year throughout Canada.
Many of us are so focused with our disaster; we can't believe Justin Trudeau would match contributions towards international disasters but wouldn't match Red Cross donations towards our own disaster.
Our disaster, mind you, which has burned some homes, caused evacuations and closed roads! But killed nobody.
And while were making a big fuss running amok trying to control fires with a 1 billion dollar national budget, to put out fires burning near the homes we built in the forest, how is the rest of the world doing this summer?
Well BC IS BURNING! There is so much smoke!
Fires are a natural process. Fire ecology is now much more widely recognized and there is a lot of weight behind fire as a necessity to forest. Research is challenging in areas where logging has removed much of the historic forests but in many places trees are examined and their fire scars reveal the history of fires in the ecosystem.
Some myths about forest fires:
- Wildfires are only more intense now than what is natural because of climate change and years of fire suppression.
- Wildfire are more frequent now because of forestry and human ignition.
Our forests have evolved to burn but are we going allow them to follow their natural progression and adapt? Or are we going to keep running around with buckets and lament over the hot weather and smoke?
Studies of fire regime, including fire intensity, severity and frequency show that low intensity and high intensity fires were both more frequent historically. Additionally, human ignition has always been a part of forest ecology. First Nations peoples have practiced controlled burning for hundreds, probably thousands, of years before they were usurped. And yes, forestry and fire suppression has made our forests more susceptible to more fires but we're still way off from the historical burning regime. What more, climate change is changing our fire regime and with new weather patterns, our forests are far from not hitting their targets.
Though logging companies would prefer unburnt forests, forests are dynamic, chaotic ecosystems and forest fires are part of the mosaic of forest ecology.
- Forested cities and towns should have evacuation protocols in the same way coastal towns need to think about tsunamis.
- We should be installing infrastructure to safeguard larger urban areas (fire hoses, water tanks, sprinklers, etc.)
- Susceptible houses should either be built to withstand wildfire or built to burn and be rebuilt.
- We should be doing more controlled burns around populated areas and preventing accidental human ignition.
Lets recalibrate how we think about wildfire.