On average, wildfires have burned 314,383 hectares of forest in B.C. annually since 2008. But in recent years, the scale and severity has increased in B.C. and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest – notably California, where megafires have become something of a seasonal event.
In B.C., more than 1.2 million hectares burned in 2017 and 1.3 million in 2018. So far this year, 555,904 hectares of forest have been ravaged by fire in the province. The damage included the razing of the entire town of Lytton.
As of last week, more than 3,000 firefighters and 212 planes and helicopters were busy trying to contain 250 fires in B.C.
Since climate change is almost certainly responsible for exacerbating natural drought cycles that contribute to wildfires, it underscores the need for adaptation measures, which in the case of forest fires includes better prevention, detection and suppression. And in some cases, the best approach may be literally fighting fire with fire.
Of all the natural disasters believed to be exacerbated by climate change, including floods, drought and hurricanes, managing wildfires is perhaps the most urgent. After all, when a forest burns, it pumps huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, which adds to the problem.
Andrew Weaver, former BC Green Party leader and climate modelling scientist at the University of Victoria, co-authored a paper in 2004 that linked climate change with the increased scale of forest fires in Canada and predicted that the area burned will double by the end of the century.
“The [CO2] being released by forest fires will start to dwarf the actual emissions in B.C.,” Weaver told BIV News. “It’s not inconceivable that it will dwarf our total annual emissions. The good news is that stuff regrows after a fire, and then it starts to draw down that carbon.”
“Stuff I would expect in the 2030s, we’re seeing it now,” said Mike Flannigan, a wildfire expert and co-author of the 2004 paper. “So it’s happening faster than I would have thought. Not every year is a bad fire year. But on average, we’re going to see more of these extreme years, like 2017, 2018 and 2021 in British Columbia.”
Flannigan was recently recruited from Alberta to Thompson Rivers University, where he will be developing an improved wildfire detection system that uses machine learning to better predict when and where extreme fires are most likely to develop and how they might move and grow.
“The idea is to use an enhanced early warning system so that we can get the resources to those areas ahead of time,” Flannigan said.
On the suppression side, the personnel and equipment available in B.C. and Canada for fighting wildfires is adequate.
“Fire management in Canada, they’re one of the best in the world, and B.C. is one of the best in Canada,” Flannigan said. “But there is room for improvement.”
B.C.’s Wildfire Service can command up to 20 air tankers capable of dropping retardant, 10 amphibious air tankers, which skim lakes to fill up with water, and scores of helicopters capable of dropping water or retardant.
The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) can also deploy firefighters and aircraft across Canada to wherever they are most needed. But when fires are raging in multiple regions of North America – as they are now – these resources can be stretched.
“It takes three days for that helicopter crew to get to the fire site,” Flannigan said of the CIFFC system. “If you had a three- to five-day early warning system, you could call them and get them to the place so they could put out unwanted fires.”
By unwanted fires, he means ones that threaten human habitation. For fires in more remote areas, the best approach may be to simply let some of them burn themselves out, he said, especially the large, intense ones.
“It’s like spitting on a campfire,” Flannigan said. “You are wasting your money. If it’s small, an initial attack? Absolutely. Hit it hard, and hit it fast. But if it’s big, you’re not doing anything.”
One technology approach that might help in earlier detection of forest fires is the new WildFireSat system being developed by the Canadian Forest Service and Canadian Space Agency. It is expected to be in operation by 2026.
“I think we do have pretty good prediction systems in Canada,” said David Scott at the Earth, Environmental and Geographic Sciences department at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus.
On the prevention side, Scott said Canadians may need to get used to prescribed burning, especially near urban areas. Too much dead wood on forest floors is tinder waiting to be lit.
Controlled burning is something First Nations traditionally practised and have lately been pushing to resume. Prescribed burning is typically done in the spring or fall, when there is sufficient moisture to allow living trees to survive small controlled burns that cleanse the forest of dead wood.
“Now, the province is recognizing the need to use fire to reduce fuel loads,” Scott said. “I think that is something we can expect we will be using in the future.”
Weaver thinks prescribed burning could be a hard sell, politically, and would have to be done very carefully.
“Good luck to the government that wants to do that,” he said. “Because when you do that, you’re killing animals and when you kill animals you upset environmentalists.”
“I’m a big advocate of prescribed burning and Indigenous practices,” Flannigan said. “But I don’t think we can treat enough of the landscape to make fire go away. But we should target key areas around communities.”
Weaver said local and provincial governments need to implement fire-hardening policies that include better buffering between forests and homes. At some point, homeowners who don’t have fire-hardened homes may find themselves unable to get insurance.
“Building codes and permitting are also something that needs to change,” Weaver said.
Flannigan agrees that many adaptive measures can be used to reduce the risk of damage from forest fires, but ultimately adaptation will include simply accepting that there will be more frequent severe fire seasons in the future.
“Unfortunately, we are going to see more catastrophic fire, more communities affected, in part because we’re seeing more of that extreme weather, but partly because there’s more values on the landscape,” he said. “There’s more communities, there’s more infrastructure, so it’s more likely the fire will bump into these when it’s burning.”•