The Heat is On: Managing Canada’s Wildfires and Creating Resilient Communities

by kohearn on November 25, 2016 - 2:47pm

This May, Canadians and people around the world were shocked by the wildfire that tore through Fort McMurray, Alberta, leaving almost 80,000 people homeless and resulting in immense economic and social consequences. Most people saw the fire as an event that could never have been predicted, and it highlighted the importance of disaster readiness for communities at risk from wildfires. Yet in an article by Maclean’s, Glenn McGillivray brings attention to the comprehensive fire management plan the Canadian government has had access to since 2005, yet never fully implemented. Developed by the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers (CCFM), the Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy aims to reduce the impact of uncontrolled fires through increased emergency preparedness, public education, support for FireSmart community programs, and better design and support of decision-making processes. McGillivray argues that fire management has been put on the back burner at all levels of government, resulting in haphazard implementation. I was amazed to learn this plan had been around so long, yet most of its strategies had not been put into practice. From the plan’s inception to around 2009, the CCFM met regularly to revise and target implementation strategies as needed, based on new information or changing situations due to climate change and new methods of forest management. However, it took the Fort McMurray fire to galvanize more provinces and territories into action, as the social and economic costs of wildfires were made devastatingly clear.

Now that the government has taken a renewed interest, the CCFM carried out a review of progress made in the last 10 years, and highlighted critical goals for the future. It’s important to remember that despite the ebb and flow of coverage in the news, wildfires are not simply a one-time event, and our ability to deal with them and create fire resilient communities requires continued support. Command and control management, which assumes nature is predictable and can be controlled, has been proven ineffective for forest fire management, particularly because complete suppression increases the amount of material available to burn. But the shift we’ve seen to adaptive management requires a constant flow of new information about natural systems, so that management practices can accommodate change. CCFM’s plan addresses the paralyzing effect of uncertainty on fire management strategies, and calls for increased investment in fire suppression and early warning systems, as well as multi-disciplinary research to better understand forest systems. Its goal for emergency preparedness emphasizes the importance of being able to cope with uncertainty and create resilience, as being prepared for a forest fire is a much more productive use of resources than attempting to eliminate all uncertainty. Included in this shift to adaptive management are changes in strategy for encouraging and implementing better management techniques at all levels of society, from individual citizens to federal governments. The strategy includes multiple implementation tools: rather than relying solely on regulatory and economic instruments like fire bans and fines, public outreach and research to improve fire mitigation strategies are key aspects (CCFM 2016). Emergency preparedness will require the most investment from governments at all levels, as it includes repairing critical infrastructure like roads and ensuring communities have access to firefighting equipment, personnel, and early warning systems (CCFM 2016).

The increased attention this issue has received in the wake of Fort McMurray will hopefully lead to meaningful change in Canada’s fire management techniques, encouraging cooperation and collaboration between different levels of government, researchers, forestry managers, and communities. The risk of forest fires is expected to rise as climate change encourages dry conditions and increased temperatures, and unprepared areas may find themselves left in the dust.

References

Canadian Council of Forest Ministers. (2016). Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy: A 10-Year Review and Call to Action. Retrieved from http://cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/pubwarehouse/pdfs/37108.pdf

McGillivray, G. (2016, May 12). It’s time to implement a long-dormant plan for managing wildfires. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-commentary/its-time-to-implement-a-long-dormant-plan-for-managing-wildfires/article29980959/

Snowdon, W. (2016, June 13). Fort McMurray fire largely contained thanks to rain, firefighters' efforts. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/fort-mcmurray-wildfire-mostly-contained-1.3632949

Comments

I think your response to the fact that the existing plans have not been implemented is justified. I believe that it is reflective of how long legislature takes to actually put into action. That being said, hopefully this is a eye opener to the rest of our country to prepare and practice for disasters. Just when you think something could never happen to you is exactly when it strikes. There are fires burning in Tennessee and Colorado right NOW, and things are only going to get worse. With drier summers and hotter temperatures, I believe we will be seeing record rates of wildfire, and more damage than can be imagined. Though we can attempt to predict future trends, you are correct in saying that command and control management may not be appropriate for this type of event.
Hopefully we can decide on some concrete form of management soon in order to be able to deal with the future, although uncertainty is definitely something we should be incorporating into these plans.

I think your response to the fact that the existing plans have not been implemented is justified. I believe that it is reflective of how long legislature takes to actually put into action. That being said, hopefully this is a eye opener to the rest of our country to prepare and practice for disasters. Just when you think something could never happen to you is exactly when it strikes. There are fires burning in Tennessee and Colorado right NOW, and things are only going to get worse. With drier summers and hotter temperatures, I believe we will be seeing record rates of wildfire, and more damage than can be imagined. Though we can attempt to predict future trends, you are correct in saying that command and control management may not be appropriate for this type of event.
Hopefully we can decide on some concrete form of management soon in order to be able to deal with the future, although uncertainty is definitely something we should be incorporating into these plans.