Fires in Canada have so far burned forests totaling the size of the state of Virginia. The province of Quebec recorded its largest fire on record this month as it swept across an area 13 times the size of New York City. Megafires, so vast and ferocious they simply can’t be fought, have broken out across the country.
Even as thousands of Canadians and overseas firefighters continued to fight more than 900 fires, Canada record fire season It has made it clear that traditional firefighting methods are no longer enough, say fire and forestry experts.
Instead of focusing on putting out the flames, fire agencies, provincial governments and the logging industry need to make fundamental changes to stop fires from starting and spreading in the first place, they say.
They include steps like closing forests off to people when conditions are ripe for fires and ramping up patrols to spot smaller fires earlier, when there’s still a chance to contain them.
New strategies are crucial because wildfires, across the vastness of Canada, are predicted to become increasingly difficult to fight as they become more frequent and larger in hotter, drier conditions resulting from climate change.
“We can add billions and billions and billions of dollars, and even then we wouldn’t be able to put out all the fires,” he said. Yves Bergeron, an expert in forest ecology and management at the University of Quebec. “We need a paradigm shift from seeing the role of fire agencies as putting out fires to protecting human society.”
Across Canada, fire agencies and provincial governments have been battling wildfires as they always have, experts say: by responding to wildfire outbreaks by trying to suppress them or stop them from spreading, or by simply letting remote fires burn away from vital communities and infrastructure.
Some provinces went on to ban the use of fire in forests and eventually close forests altogether.
But so many fires have broken out across Canada simultaneously — even in eastern provinces like Quebec and Nova Scotia that don’t usually experience the kind of outbreaks common in western Canada — that fire agencies have been overwhelmed, even with reinforcements overseas.
The Quebec agency, with the capacity to fight about 30 fires simultaneously, was faced with three to four times that number, experts said.
With a couple of months left in the fire season, the result has already been nearly 28 million acres of forest burned, a record for a single fire season and five times the annual average.
More than 155,000 people At one point they were evacuated from their homes, some more than once, and three firefighters were killed. Smoke from the wildfires wafted across the United States and western Europe, darkening the skies and making air quality dangerous.
“We were too reactive,” he said Michael Flanganfire management expert at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.
In provinces where human activity is suspected to have caused wildfires, such as Alberta and Nova Scotia, officials have implemented fire bans and closed forests, but only after the fires had already started and spread, and even if conditions before the outbreaks had indicated a high risk, Flannigan said.
“Alberta and Nova Scotia both used forest closures this year, but they used them too late, after wildfires were burning across the landscape,” Flannigan said. “In the case of Alberta, you could see this upper ridge, this extreme weather event — hot, dry and windy — coming a week early.”
Forest closures are “very unpopular but very effective for stopping man-made fires,” said Flannigan.
Political leaders are closing the forests reluctantly, and even then only gradually, experts say, in part because of the loss of revenue and the unpopularity of blocking access to public lands.
But closing forests early when conditions become extremely hazardous — and eliminating human activity that can start wildfires, from recreational camping to the use of all-terrain vehicles — means restrictions can be lifted fairly quickly, experts said.
Cordy Tymstrawildland fire management consultant and former scientific coordinator with Alberta’s Fire management agency, said Canadian provinces should follow Australia’s lead, another country that often faces significant bushfires and where forests are automatically closed when certain weather conditions exist.
“We need to take an apolitical approach or an automated system,” Tymstra said. “Sorry, the forest is closed. You can’t ride your ATV down that trail.”
It is crucial to close forests early in the face of extremely hot, dry and windy conditions because any resulting fires typically lead to the most destruction. In Canada, 3 percent of wildfires account for 97 percent of forests burned, Flannigan said.
In areas where fires tend to be caused by lightning such as British Columbia, Tymstra said, patrols should be increased on risky days. The strategy should be to detect fires as early as possible to use a small window of perhaps as little as 20 minutes to try and put them out before they become more dangerous and harder to control.
“Your best investment is to hit them hard, hit them fast, before they go beyond a certain size,” Tymstra said.
“This year has been a strong call for change,” he added. “We need transformative change, a big rethink.”
Canada, whose vast boreal forest is considered one of the world’s largest terrestrial carbon sinks, needs to shift to a fire mitigation and prevention policy, experts said.
In Quebec, the fire agency has historically focused on extinguishing fires in commercially viable logging areas, Bergeron said. It should refocus on making communities and infrastructure more resistant to fires, for example by creating buffers made of less flammable trees or plants.
Reducing or eliminating power lines running through forests would reduce fires, experts said. Managed burns, common in parts of the western United States, could be used to reduce the flammability of forests.
Encouraging the logging industry to cut the mosaic patterns could slow the spread of wildfires. Soliciting industry to plant faster-growing but less commercially valuable tree species, such as jack pine, would accelerate forest regeneration.
But these changes would be costly and some, such as those related to logging, would require delicate negotiations with a politically powerful industry. Reforms should also take place in each of the provinces, which are in charge of fighting fires in their territories.
Fire agencies, Tymstra said, have been slow to step out of their traditional “comfort zone” of focusing only on putting out fires.
“The model of fighting all fires all the time, we lose,” Flannigan said. “The area burned in Canada has doubled since the 1970s,” she said, driven “in large part, not just, by human-caused climate change.”
This year’s wildfires, plus a string of record-breaking temperatures in Canada’s far north, have brought the issue of managing the country’s forests to the fore as the country and the rest of the world get hotter.
With climate change, wildfire season in Canada starts earlier in the spring and ends later in the fall. The largest and most destructive wildfires have grown in size over the past few decades and are expected to continue to grow, he said Yan Boulangera forest ecology expert at the Canadian Forest Service who has worked on modeling how Canada’s forests will evolve.
“It’s going to get harder and harder to fight these big fires,” Boulanger said. “The harsher the climate gets, the fires will become more intense in the amount of energy they release. We’ve seen some fires release so much energy this year that they couldn’t be fought directly by water bomber planes, much less firefighters on the ground.”
“These fires will be much more intense and we will have many more of them,” Boulanger said, adding that the resulting smoke “will reach the United States, maybe not every year, but very commonly.”