Fighting fire with fire: How fire management policies affect wildfires in Canada

by Sonja Soo, Science & Policy Exchange

These days, it’s hard not to hear about wildfires.

In the past several years, summers in Canada consist of wildfires (or “forest fires”) burning thousands of acres of land, forcing residents to evacuate, filling the air with smoke, and costing the government millions of dollars in fire management. This summer, wildfires returned once again across Canada. Despite only being halfway through this current wildfire season, B.C. has already surpassed the 10-year average in terms of the number of fires burned and the total area burned. In the small town of Lytton, B.C., a wildfire roared through the community and burned down most of the village within hours, destroying homes and uprooting lives.

How do these wildfires get started in the first place? Why have they been so destructive in recent years?

(Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash)

What starts and fuels the fires

Wildfires are ignited by lightning or human activity. When lightning strikes, the heat is sufficient to ignite the trees and vegetation to start a fire. Human activity such as cigarettes, campfires, and arson can also cause fires to start. Importantly, these fires require both oxygen and wildfire fuel such as dry grass and vegetation, which can quickly ignite and sustain the fire.

Climate change has also made an impact on wildfires. Hotter days, stronger winds, and drier conditions make forests more flammable. Warmer temperatures also allow wood-boring forest pests such as mountain pine beetles to survive the milder winters and spread, leaving behind dead wood and adding more fuel to the fires.

Policies surrounding fire management have had an important effect on wildfires. For decades, fire suppression and prevention was the main strategy. The logic makes sense: by aggressively putting out all fires, nature would be preserved with all its beauty.

However, this strategy discounts the value of fires in shaping the ecology of the Canadian boreal forests. In fact, periodic fires are needed for a healthy forest. The natural fire cycle prevents flammable fuels from building up, stimulates new growth by releasing nutrients stored on the forest floors, and unveils the forest canopy for more sunshine, allowing the younger trees to grow and biodiversity to increase. Some tree species such as jack pine and lodgepole pines have a protective waxy coat around their pine cones that require heat for their seeds to be released and their life cycle to continue.

By implementing fire suppression policies in Canada for decades, there are older forest stands, which contribute to more flammable forests and increased risks of wildfires. Since areas that are close to communities are a priority for fire management, there is a build-up of forest fuels, which increases their vulnerability to more destructive wildfires.

The shift in wildfire management strategies

The realization that natural forest fires play an important role has led to a shift in the policies for fire management, which include thinning the vegetation, letting the fires burn, and controlled burns. Controlled burns, also known as prescribed burns, are purposely applied to forests to reduce the build-up of fuels to prevent larger and more uncontrollable wildfires from happening. Typically, these are carefully planned for low-risk seasons (fall and winter).

Controlled burns are not a new concept; before they were removed from their land, Indigenous Peoples have traditionally practiced cultural burns. Cultural burns were performed for specific purposes, such as managing the fuel build-up, enriching the soil, and regenerating the forest, though practices may vary across nations. Fire was also used to clear land and maintain paths. These low-intensity burns not only increase biodiversity but also reduce fire risks.

The sun appears a hazy orange due to the wildfire smoke in Vancouver, B.C. (photo by Julie Kit, August 2021)

Unfortunately, implementing controlled burns is not as simple as it sounds. Despite these long-term benefits of fire, there are many barriers to this shift in fire management. When it comes to the interest of the public, there are concerns about fires negatively impacting the quality of air, which could exacerbate lung conditions. Smoke from fires can also interfere with air or road transportation by reducing visibility. There is also a lack of funding from the government to support prevention, mitigation, and preparedness that has not kept up with the increasing severity of wildfires. These burns can also take up to years to plan due to a meticulous approval process. Lastly, although Indigenous Peoples are allowed to have cultural burns on their reserves without government approval, the fires are sometimes reported and in some cases, are forced to be extinguished.

Looking ahead

With the combination of fuel build-up and climate change, B.C. wildfires could be even more disastrous with passing time; not only more lands will be burned up, but more lives could also be lost. The long-held negative attitudes towards fires must be changed.

Integration of Indigenous knowledge of the land is needed for forest management. Action must be taken now to prevent devastating wildfires from becoming even deadlier.

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