We’d better get used to hearing, “this is the worst fire season on record,” according to Ed Struzik, one of the foremost Canadian experts on wildfires and author of Firestorm: How Wildfires Shape our Future.
Struzik was the latest presenter in the Museum at Campbell River’s Diamond Lecture Series. He says fire seasons aren’t going to get any better until we change our mindset around how to deal with them – and we’d better get serious about doing so.
“I’d been working on the book before the Fort McMurray wildfire of 2016,” Struzik told the crowd at the museum lecture, “and when that fire started burning, I called up a wildfire scientist by the name of Mike Flannigan – probably one of the best in North America – and I said, ‘I missed my chance to get this book out there,’ and he laughed at me and said, ‘oh, there’ll be another big fire season soon enough.’”
Sure enough, the following year saw over a million hectares of land burned here in B.C., where nearly 50,000 people were forced to leave their homes and the province took a fiscal hit of over $500 million in firefighting efforts alone, not to mention the cost of the damage to homes, businesses, vehicles and other property. California also had its worst fire season on record that year, with nearly 9,000 fires burning over 1.3 million acres and taking 46 lives, including one firefighter.
“And it’s just going to get worse,” Struzik says.
That is, unless we start investing in research, conservation, education and proper forest management practices.
Struzik’s presentation went through over a century of how we’ve been dealing with wildfires here in North America, with numerous examples of what fires happened where, when, and how they were fought, “and what we still haven’t figured out, somehow, is that we can’t just throw money at fighting them when they pop up.”
What needs to happen, Struzik says, is a collaborative approach to nurturing our forests, thinning them through responsible forestry practices, because when forests get too thick, they burn hotter and more devastatingly than they would if they were managed properly.
“We’ve essentially nurtured a single-age, mature forest right across the Canadian west, and even in Northern Ontario and Quebec,” Struzik says, “and we’ve set them up to have big, big, intense fires.”
“And the reality is that big fires can’t be stopped,” he continues. “I’ve seen it time and time again, when we have a big fire, everybody points their fingers at the government and says, ‘you didn’t do enough to put out that fire.’ The reality is that once a fire gets over 200 hectares … you really can’t stop it.”
So throwing more money into firefighting efforts isn’t a good use of financial resources that can be better utilized for fire prevention, he says. Nor is it of much value to fight fires that aren’t threatening lives.
Struzik recounted the story of the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park, “where the park officials allowed the fires in the remote parts of the park to burn. They got out of control and everybody in America thought that their iconic park was going to completely disappear from the landscape forever,” Struzik says. “What we learned after that fire is that everything starts to regenerate very quickly. Bears moved in to feed on carrion, elk moved in to feed on the aspen shoots that rose up in only one summer. That forest regenerated beautifully. If you travel through Yellowstone today, you’d never know there was a huge fire there in 1988.”
We also need to put pressure on our politicians to make these changes.
“I think that as we get more and more of these fires burning bigger, hotter and faster, we’re going to end up with more communities demanding some kind of action,” Struzik says. “At some point we’re simply going to run out of money doing it the way we’re doing it. Alternatives have got to be found.”
Those alternatives are things like developing early warning systems that allow people to evacuate more efficiently during a fire event, nurturing our forests and thinning them so they don’t burn so intensely when they do get lit up by fire and educating people on responsible fire use while they are out in nature to cut back on the number of human-caused fires.
The next event in the museum’s Diamond Lecture Series is on April 28 when local historian Jeanette Taylor will explore our region’s past through storytelling. Find out more at crmuseum.ca