In May 2016 a massive wildfire that became known as The Beast caused $3.6 billion in damage as it burned across 5,000 square kilometres of land in and around Fort McMurray, Alberta. It took a year for it to finally be declared as fully extinguished. Apart from the physical damage, the fire has had psychological effects on the general population and there are studies underway on specific perinatal stress as a result. The Fort McMurray fire was massive in scale but climate change coupled with little change in wildfire management, means even smaller fires can bring big problems. Guest contributor Sarah Boon looks at some of the implications, in this review of Firestorm by Ed Struzik.
Ed Struzik’s latest book, Firestorm, was recently nominated
as one of the best Canadian general science books by the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada. It’s no surprise to see it on the shortlist, as Struzik comprehensively tackles a topic that’s on many people’s minds these days: wildfire, particularly wildfire in North America.
Struzik’s book contains five key arguments: (1) wildfire is changing with climate change; (2) we need a new paradigm for wildfire management; (3) political will is required to change and improve our approach to fighting wildfire; (4) people are unaware of wildfire risk and the role of prescribed burns; and, (5) wildfire isn’t just a forestry issue, it’s also an economic issue.
He starts with a play-by-play of what went on behind the scenes of the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire
(Horse River fire), which burned over 1 million acres in both Alberta and Saskatchewan, and caused $3.6 billion in insured damages. His conclusion is that, rather than being organized and well-prepared, the city was lucky that it was able to evacuate with only two deaths. As he writes, “loss of life is not necessarily the best way of measuring success.” You can’t rely on luck alone to keep people safe in an age of increasingly severe wildfires that, as University of Alberta researcher Mike Flannigan says, “are consistent with what we expect from human-induced climate change.” Such fires have long-lasting consequences: in late summer after the Horse River wildfire, 20,000 people signed up to receive mental health counselling.
The book also provides a play-by-play of the 2013 wildfire season (Ch. 4, Visions of the Pyrocene,). Though the area burned wasn’t record breaking, the majority of fires burned at the urban-wildland interface; this was the first time that both researchers and firefighters realized that wildfire behaviour had shifted, and a new paradigm was required to manage it.
In Chapter 2, Struzik delves into the history of wildfire research, particularly how current megafires (fires that burn > 100,000 acres) develop and behave, making them difficult to fight, and how research funding for wildfire science has declined. As Struzik writes, “[Canadian wildfire research] has been mercilessly gutted since the 1980s.” Canada has had two major post-fire reports: the Filmon Report
was published after the 2003 wildfire season, and the Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy
was put forward in 2004. But at a 2007 meeting of wildfire managers and scientists from across North America, “they all expressed fear that no one was prepared for what was coming to the north half of the continent.”
Struzik covers the history of firefighting in Chapter 3, which is really a history of fire suppression, as the USFS was advised in the 1930s to “extinguish all fires by 10 a.m. the next day.” There has been little appetite for prescribed burns, such as those undertaken by First Nations peoples for centuries, to manage future wildfire, largely because of the lack of social license to undertake them. Thus, public education programs are critical.
Struzik emphasizes that governments are running out of resources to fight increasingly large and intense wildfires. For the first time in 2015, which wasn’t a severe wildfire year, wildfire costs topped $1 billion in Canada alone. Is it more cost-effective to undertake prescribed burns and Fire Smart programs and reduce the risk of large wildfires? Wildfire also impacts local businesses: consider the number of oil sands operations that were shut down during the Horse River Fire, or the vineyards burned during the Okanagan Park wildfires in 2003.
In the remaining chapters, we learn about the impacts of wildfire on drinking water; the perils of wildfires occurring in contaminated areas (e.g., Chernobyl, or near an abandoned asbestos mine); the
role of drought, insects, and disease in priming our forests for wildfire; the release of carbon and melting of permafrost when Arctic tundra burns; and the impact of ash on glacier melt.
It’s not all bad news, however: in Chapter 10, Resilience and Recovery, Struzik addresses the ecological benefits of moderate wildfire, particularly its role in maintaining biodiversity. “Used wisely,” he writes, “prescribed burns have helped endangered and threatened species recover.” These prescribed burns also reduce the likelihood of megafires, which are more destructive to regional ecosystems.
I felt that the author was almost trying to pack too much into one book. In addition to the topics listed above, he brings in historic North American fires from the turn of the century, and the terrible Australian fires (e.g., Black Saturday, on February 7, 2009). He also includes personal asides, such as his trips down rivers in the Northwest Territories, or his visit to Chernobyl with Dr. Clare Moisey in 1996, which are not entirely necessary in the context of the larger narrative. I suspect it was this sheer volume of information that led to some organizational challenges: information in The Mind of a Wildfire, for example, would have fit better in the History of Fire Suppression chapter, while information on air quality from The Big Smoke would have fit better in The Mind of a Wildfire. It was also not clear from the book how the large North American wildfires at the turn of the century differed from today’s large wildfire, which is an important distinction to make when we know that today’s fires are “burning bigger, hotter, faster, and more often.” Note that this phrase is true, but it was repeated over 20 times in the book which seemed a bit much.
It’s ironic that the book was finished just before the worst wildfire season on record in British Columbia. In 2017, a total of 1,342 fires burned through almost 3 million acres of forest. At the height of the fires, over 65,000 people across the province were evacuated from their homes. The three largest fires were all megafires, with the Plateau Fire complex being the largest in BC history at 1.3 million acres, which was double the size of the previous largest wildfire in 1958. The province spent more than $568 million to control the fires.
There is now another post-wildfire report underway in BC: the Chapman/Abbott report. Its recommendations will likely mirror those of the 2003 Filmon Report
and the 2004 Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy
, given how few of the recommendations from these reports were actually implemented.
As for what the future holds, each of the wildfire researchers Struzik talked to has a list of which cities they expect to burn next. Mike Flannigan has Prince George, BC on his list. Others have Sulphur Mountain in Banff National Park, or Timmins, Ontario on their lists. It’s not a question of whether they’ll burn, but when. If we are to better manage our forests, reduce firefighting costs, and decrease insured losses, it is critical that we follow the recommendations from the Filmon, federal, and Chapman/Abbott reports.