Canada’s devastating wildfire season prompts calls for new approach 

The wildfires that ravaged Canada this summer have some experts calling for a more aggressive approach to the blazes than the country’s historically reactive, case-by-case approach. 

As of Tuesday, 1,160 fires are burning across the country. This year, nearly 30 million acres have burned across Canada, an area bigger than several individual U.S. states. The area burned — the fourth-most of any season on record — is too large to rely on colder weather and precipitation to do the bulk of the work in extinguishing the blazes.  

The affected area has included regions more prone to large fires, such as British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Fires in eastern provinces such as Quebec, where blazes are less common, blanketed the eastern U.S. in haze earlier this summer. In those provinces, wildfire agencies that are equipped to fight fewer and smaller fires were largely unprepared for the circumstances. 

“[T]he fires are burning hotter and spreading faster than they usually do. The image of a firefighter spraying water on a fire, or a water bomber dropping water right on the fire needs to be dispelled: under the current conditions, humans cannot get within 100s of meters of the fires: so no direct spraying can be done on most fires,” Chris Stockdale, a fire research scientist at the Northern Forestry Centre in Edmonton, Alberta, told The Hill in an email. 

“Furthermore, you have to consider the whole perimeter of the fire as dangerous and capable of spreading,” Stockdale added. 

The current wildfire situation “takes a level of waterbombing and human power that is literally impossible to address,” he said. “Even if most of an individual fire’s perimeter is fully extinguished, any parts that are not put out have the potential to flare up days or even weeks later under the right weather conditions.” 

Historically, Canada’s approach to fires has been largely reactive and mostly concerned with immediate extinguishment of active fires, said Mohammad Reza Alizadeh, a researcher with McGill University’s Department of Bioresource Engineering.  

“The limited understanding of fire ecology at that time necessitated the immediate suppression of fires to protect valuable timber resources,” Alizadeh told The Hill in an email. 

More recently, however, the country has taken steps including increased specialization of fire agencies, improved communications systems and strategic use of water-bombing from the air, he said. The more fire-prone regions of the country have also shifted their thinking to a more preventive approach and a perspective that acknowledges the value of controlled burns, he said. 

“This shifted the focus to early detection and prompt response, exemplified by the adoption of controlled burns to create firebreaks and reduce fuel accumulation. Simultaneously, a more balanced and enlightened perspective has shaped by a growing recognition of fire’s ecological role and its effect on biodiversity,” Alizadeh said. “This paradigm shift changed away from strict fire suppression and toward an inclusive approach to fire management.”

However, the sheer number and size of active fires, as well as their presence in areas less accustomed to dealing with the threat, has strained local resources and illustrated the limits of a case-by-case strategy. 

“[W]e have many fires in many parts of the country drawing upon a limited number of resources, both within Canada and internationally,” Canadian Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said in June. Firefighters have been deployed to assist from the U.S., Australia, South Korea and Mexico. 

While American forest management is typically handled at the federal level under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service, Canadian management operates on more of a provincial and territorial basis.  

“Each province is responsible for maintaining its own resources and personnel for firefighting. Historically, most provinces employ full-time enough resources to deal with their average fire seasons,” Stockdale said. 

Smoke billows from the Donnie Creek wildfire burning north of Fort St. John, British Columbia, Canada, on July 2. Associated Press/Noah Berger

That province-level approach to management has meant officials must frequently make hard decisions about what to prioritize saving from the path of the fires, said John Gradek, a faculty lecturer and the coordinator of McGill University’s aviation management program. 

“The question you have to ask yourself is: What is the vision of the government in protecting that resource? Is there enough money? Are there enough assets in place to protect that resource?” he told The Hill in an interview. “If the resource is not threatening established infrastructure … that resource is not going to be protected from fire to the extent that [government officials] would look at fire suppression.” 

Particularly in Quebec and British Columbia, Gradek said, “the amount of fire suppression has been focused on those fires that are threatening human infrastructure. What’s happening is, at this point in our strategy, we’re not looking at all forest fires. We’re being very selective.” 

In future wildfire seasons, he said, officials may find it more effective to find ways to take preventive action to minimize fires farther from human infrastructures as well, including the daunting task of potentially clearing underbrush from forest floors.

“The provincial governments who are responsible for minimizing the [fires] have decided the strategy will be focused on protecting infrastructure that’s supporting human settlement,” he said. “They’ve left all the remote fires … to burn themselves out, and that’s generating a lot of smoke and that’s generating discomfort across North America, because of that smoke.”

Other experts, however, argue the nature of the fires, and the land they’re burning, mean firefighters have limited options. 

“[T]he area is too large and too remote and the fuels are too dry.  In addition, there are many fires occurring simultaneously, which stretches resources (e.g., aircraft) and firefighting labor,” Robert Scheller, a professor of landscape ecology at North Carolina State University, told The Hill in an email. “Firefighting under these circumstances can really only protect property and people. They’ve managed to limit losses to people and property and so I’d argue they’ve been quite successful. 

“There are a limited number of proactive approaches that are appropriate at large scales. Prescribed fires and forest thinning are the two most common approaches,” Scheller added. “However, neither of these is appropriate for the boreal forests of Canada.  Prescribed burning is only appropriate for forests that are adapted to frequent fires, such as forests in [California].  Boreal forests are not adapted to frequent fires.”  

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