As climate change is fingered as a culprit behind the early rash of forest fires across northern and western Canada, experts say the most prudent approach at this stage is to, whenever possible, let the fires burn.
It’s a grim situation. But those studying the issue say the human toll of wildfire needs to be balanced against the reality that vulnerable forests are going to burn either way — especially given the mounting pressures presented by climate change.
“The question becomes, if we’ve got areas where fire can burn, the most responsible thing to do ecologically, fiscally and for long-term health is to let those fires burn,” said Toddi Steelman, executive director of the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan.
“If we don’t let them burn, we have to pay that account down the line … the forest will burn eventually.”
It’s not an easy thing to say in the current context. Nearly 2.5 million hectares have burned in Canada already this fire season, which likely has several more weeks to go.
In what is being called the biggest exodus in Saskatchewan’s history, more than 13,000 people have been forced to flee their homes (a figure that’s tripled in just five days). Firefighters from as far away as Australia and New Zealand are being shuttled to western Canada to spell off exhausted local responders.
Like Saskatchewan, B.C. has already outspent its $63 million firefighting budget on the worst forest fire season in the province’s history.
Jill Johnstone has spent several years investigating the effects of wildfire on the boreal forests in Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories. One of her discoveries is that in areas where forest fires burn severely and frequently — a growing phenomenon in a warmer, drier climate — the typical black spruce trees that characterize much of the boreal are replaced by leafy deciduous species such as aspen.
While black spruce are described as being “born to burn” because of special adaptations, including cones that only release seeds after a blaze, fire moves less easily through broad-leaf forests.
“As the climate is warming, we’re having more frequent extreme fire weather that leads to big, active fire years. And the fires that burn under those conditions seem to trigger parts of the landscape to shift to this less flammable vegetation type,” Johnstone, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan, told DeSmog Canada.
“The idea is that maybe it won’t just be a runaway train where the more the climate warms, the more fire we get,” she said.
How to prevent an endless cycle of destructive climate change impacts is a burning question for anyone working on fire, drought and other problems associated with extreme heat. Johnstone describes her findings as both controversial and profoundly important for how we understand and choose to adapt to the growing risks.
The boreal forests, stretching from the Yukon border to the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, are where the vast majority of wildfire burning takes place. Allowing more of these forests to burn naturally could fundamentally change the boreal ecosystem, from the types of plants that grow there to the animals that call it home.
In the immediate future, this is problematic for the communities and species that depend on the boreal as a source of food and shelter. (Hunters and trappers in northern Saskatchewan are already raising concerns about the effects of fire on their livelihoods.) But over time, a boreal forest dominated by deciduous trees could be less prone to fire and, according to separate research, play an important role in helping cool the planet.
“If large fires are actually a mechanism for resetting the landscape to be less flammable … we need to let large fires burn because they are catalysts of change,” Johnstone said.
Fire agencies in the Northwest Territories and British Columbia explicitly name climate change as a factor driving heightened fire risks. On its website, even the federal ministry that oversees the development of the oilsands predicts the amount of area burned by forest fires in previous decades could double during this current one, thanks to climate change.
University of Alberta professor Mike Flannigan, a lead researcher on wildfire and climate change, points to temperature as the most important variable driving forest fire risk.
Warmer temperatures (like those predicted by climate models) exacerbate the three conditions needed for fire: dry fuel, an ignition agent like lightning and the hot, dry, windy weather that propels fire across a landscape.
“We need a 15 per cent increase in precipitation to compensate for every [extra] degree of warmth. And models don’t show this as likely to happen,” Flannigan told DeSmog Canada.
Flannigan expressed skepticism that the solution is as simple as allowing more fire-tolerant aspens to overtake the boreal forest. But he echoed Johnstone’s prescription to let the fires burn as naturally and freely as possible.
In fact, several provinces and territories have taken this approach in recent years, following what Flannigan describes as a “monitor and manage” strategy of selectively intervening in fires that threaten people and developments, resources or species of value.
Fire officials in British Columbia have been taking a “modified response” approach to fires for over a decade, according to Lyle Gawalko, B.C.’s Manager of Fire Prevention. Their policy is to protect, in this order, human health and safety, communities and critical infrastructure, cultural values, watersheds, high value habitat and timber values.
If a fire starts in an area that’s deemed safe or beneficial to burn and doesn’t threaten these values, officials will simply monitor it to make sure the situation doesn’t become dangerous.
Officials in Saskatchewan have created a policy that explicitly outlines where they will fight fires versus where they will observe and assess as a blaze progresses.
The problem comes in places like Alberta where there’s very little territory that doesn’t have a value on it, Flannigan said.
“It’s almost impossible to let a fire burn without it impacting an oil and gas development, community, or other operation. That’s the problem with co-existing development and fire; it’s hard to let fire take its natural course.”
Deciding which fires pose a risk is not a simple task for many reasons. Community members as well as local officials in northern Saskatchewan have criticized the government’s policy for leaving remote communities vulnerable.
These competing needs and the public’s fear of fire — and resulting desire to have it extinguished — make the question of how fires are fought not just technical but sociopolitical.
“If I’m a mayor of a small town, of course I’m going to be doing my job as mayor to lobby to get more resources on my fire. But they need to remember is that they may be one of many, many places that need those resources,” said Steelman of the University of Saskatchewan.
“The politics is different from what the science would suggest and that’s not unusual in these kinds of debates. And I think we can expect that into the future as well.”
Given that climate impacts are already influencing the strength and spread of wildfire in Canada, Johnstone highlights the urgent need for a different conversation about how to approach the problem and possible solutions.
“If we acknowledge that we can’t suppress every fire in the landscape and then take that one step further and come to terms with the idea that fire may actually be beneficial in terms of long-term landscape resilience, there needs to be a better dialogue with the public about what our plan is about how we’re going to fight fires.”
Photo: Boulder Creek Wildfire by B.C. Wildfire Service
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