While doing research for a book I was writing on wildfire, I posed two questions to a number of experts: “Do you think there will be another Fort McMurray-like fire in the future? If so, where do you think it will happen?”
Everyone agreed on the first question. Fort McMurray was not an anomaly. It will happen again, sooner rather than later, and likely with deadly consequences.
The responses to the second question varied. University of Alberta wildfire scientist Mike Flannigan had many First Nations communities, Prince George in British Columbia and Timmins in northern Ontario high on his list.
Cliff White, a former Parks Canada scientist and one of the architects of the agency’s wildfire management program, suggested that Sulphur Mountain in Banff could burn, endangering thousands of hikers and tourists.
Wildfire scientists Brian Stocks and Marty Alexander cast a broader net. They suggested that hundreds of communities are at risk.
Glenn McGillivray, the managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, offered the most surprising response. He had Victoria and Vancouver on his list. (If you think McGillvray is exaggerating, consider the fact he predicted in a blog that a fire would threaten Fort McMurray two years before it happened.)
As this year’s fire season in British Columbia has demonstrated, the experts I talked to were right in answering the first question. Time will tell whether they will be right in answering the second. But they will almost certainly be.
Bigger, hotter, faster
The last decade has been the warmest continent-wide. Hotter weather dries the forest and produces more lightning. Lightning is responsible for most of the biggest wildfires that occur in Canada, although people cause more wildland fires than lightning strikes.
More people are living, working and recreating in the forest. There are more mature trees in the forest landscape as a result of decades of aggressive firefighting efforts. Tens of millions of these trees are dead or dying thanks to insects and disease that strike aging trees and the warming that is taking place.
It all adds up to fires burning bigger, hotter, faster and more often.
Everyone agrees that this will result in more evacuations, more homes and businesses being burned, more roads and recreation areas being closed, more smoke imperilling the health of people, especially the young, the elderly and those with respiratory problems. First Nations, which represent only four per cent of the population, will be hit especially hard. They are already affected by a third of the evacuations that take place in a given year.
Water quality will also suffer. The carbon that spills into the river systems can seriously compromise water treatment facilities, especially in places such as Victoria that do not filter water because the high quality water supply does not require them to do so.
Fort Mac sparked little change
Fort McMurray should have been the catalyst for changing the way we deal with wildfire. That blaze sent approximately 88,000 people fleeing their homes, offices, hospitals, schools, and seniors’ residences. By the time rains and cooler temperatures helped firefighters contain the fires, 2,800 homes and buildings were destroyed. Nearly 1.5 million acres burned. Insurance losses were expected to amount to $3.77 billion. The total cost of the fire, including financial, physical, and social factors, is likely to be $8.86 billion.
But has anyone in government been listening?
The government of Ontario has embarked on a policy that will allow some fires to burn themselves out so long as they don’t threaten people and commerce. This policy, which preceded Fort McMurray, will go a long way toward making forests there resilient.
But that’s just about it for the bold strategies that outgoing B.C. Premier Christy Clark and her provincial colleagues seemed to call for last year when they supported the idea of a national wildfire strategy. That’s gone nowhere.
The government of Alberta’s response so far to recommendations from an expert review panel that investigated the Fort McMurray fire has been muted at best. More money has been allotted to the FireSmart Program, which helps communities thin urban-edge forests, remove burnable fuel on the ground and around homes, and create defendable boundaries from which fires can be fought.
But it’s not nearly enough. And as Marty Alexander points out, a good chunk of the funding was given to Fort McMurray where the fires of 2016 have already removed most of the dangerous fuels from the ground.
Alberta has strengthened some wildfire protection laws but not those that matter most. The government has been reluctant to enforce existing laws (closing forests in times of extreme drought and heat) that minimize the chance of fires igniting. Alberta has promised to improve fire weather forecasting, but has offered few details.
Instead of recognizing the dangers that lie ahead, the Alberta government has chosen to treat Fort McMurray as an “extreme event.” It’s not the only government that is guilty of doing this.
Lost in the collective memory of the politicians who rotate in and out of office are the so-called extreme wildfire events of the recent past which are not so rare anymore: Salmon Arm, B.C. and Virginia Hills, Alberta in 1998; the Chisholm and House River fires of 2001 and 2002 in Alberta; West Kelowna, Okanagan Mountain Park, Kootenay, Banff, Jasper, Crowsnest Pass in 2003; the Yukon in 2004; La Tuque in northern Quebec in 2010; Slave Lake and the Richardson fires in 2011; northern Quebec in 2013; the Northwest Territories in 2014; the 2015 fire season, which was the most intense fire season of the century in western North America.
As the current situation in B.C. is demonstrating once again, these extreme events are now the new normal. In Canada, wildfires that burned more than 200,000 hectares of forest happened only four times between 1970 and 1990. Since then they have done so 12 times.
The provinces are not totally at fault. The federal government has done little to support forest science. The Canadian Forest Service used to employ 2,400 people. It now employs about 700. Most of the service’s research money goes to the study of insect infestations that impact the timber industry. The total funding is justified given the nature of the problem and the value of the industry. But less than eight per cent goes to fire research.
“Given the relative importance of fire and insects in Canadian forests, how is this disparity possible?” asks Brian Stocks, who had a long career in the forest service.
People in and out of government kept telling me that the important thing about Fort McMurray was that no one died. They are right to an extent, but they are also wrong because loss of life is not necessarily the best way of measuring success. Fort McMurray was the worst natural disaster in Canadian history. It could have been much worse if so many things – wind, demographics (Fort Mac has relatively few elderly people), safety training (most everyone in the oil sands industry knows what to do in an emergency), quick and creative thinking, heroism and outright luck — hadn’t aligned in the manners they did.
Fort McMurray dodged a lot of bullets, as the town of Slave Lake did in 2011 when everyone had to evacuate at the last minute. Those in the line of fire in the future may not be so fortunate if the provinces and the federal government fail to come to grips with the mounting challenges.
The blueprint for the future was spelled out in 2005 when Brian Stocks and a veritable who’s who of wildfire experts were asked by the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers to come up with a new wildlands fire strategy. Most of those recommendations have been ignored.