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Dealing with the Inevitable

May 7, 2015  By Paul Dixon

Spring arrived early on the west coast of North America while central Canada and the Maritimes were still locked in winter’s embrace. Ski hills on Vancouver Island and southwestern British Columbia closed by the middle of February for lack of snow when they would normally be open until Easter.

Spring arrived early on the west coast of North America while central Canada and the Maritimes were still locked in winter’s embrace. Ski hills on Vancouver Island and southwestern British Columbia closed by the middle of February for lack of snow when they would normally be open until Easter. From central Alaska all the way down to California, record low snowpack levels this year coupled with extended droughts in many of the same areas is cause for grave concern amongst fire managers. 

Some 5,000 wildfires burned in Canada in 2014.
(Photo by Chris Bergmann)


Some 42 per cent of Canada’s land mass is covered by forests. In 2013, the Canadian forest industry provided direct employment for 216,000 people and another 350,000 people were employed in related industries such as construction and transportation. The direct contribution to the Canadian economy was $20 billion. Consider the other resource-based industries such as mining, oil and gas that are located either in or in proximity to Canada’s forests and then consider the national and provincial parks along with a rapidly growing leisure economy and Canada’s forests stand even taller.

Maintaining healthy forests is essential to the wellbeing of the entire Canadian economy. For example, 2014 saw almost 5,000 wildfires destroy more than 4,600,000 hectares burned across Canada, and 74 per cent of that was in the Northwest Territories.


A Learning Process
As settlers moved into the western mountains of Canada and the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s, forestry became an economic mainstay. A burnt tree was seen as a lost dollar and a philosophy of firefighting evolved that was akin to posting armed guards outside a bank. In a world of good versus evil, fire in the woods was very much seen as evil, something to be fought at all cost. In a classic case of unexpected consequences, decades of aggressive wild land firefighting was actually setting the table for disaster by creating dense forests with a buildup of ready fuel materials.

In the 1960s, scientists began to understand that fire wasn’t necessarily a bad thing and that the high mountain forests of western North America actually need fire. The byproducts of fire return nutrients to the soil and facilitate the replacement of old timber with young forest. In the early 1970s, the U.S. Forest Service adopted a policy that would allow naturally caused fires to burn out on their own. This was based on computer models constructed from years of data that gave the USFS a level of comfort in deciding which fires could be allowed to burn and which needed to be put out.

In the summer of 1988, this policy was sorely tested in Yellowstone Park when a number of small fires were started by lightning strikes in early June. Based on their trust in the computer models, park staff left the fires alone. That summer was hotter and drier than previous summers and the fires did not go away on their own and by mid-July had created one massive fire that was growing at an unprecedented rate.

Efforts to extinguish the conflagration stripped resources from other regions of North America, ultimately more than 9,000 ground personnel and scores of aircraft and helicopters were thrown into the battle, at a cost that eventually exceeded $120 million, largely to no effect. The fires burned through the summer and on into autumn and were not finally extinguished until the snow fell. Mother Nature was both the cause and the final solution.

Some 36 per cent (3,200 square kilometres) of Yellowstone had been touched by fire and criticism of the decision to initially allow the fires to burn had been extreme. Many thought that Yellowstone had simply been destroyed, but the spring of 1989 brought surprises that few could foresee. In some areas of the park, slow moving fires had killed everything in their path, burning right down into the soil with little remaining but charred stumps. Yet in other parts of the park the fires had moved through quickly, burning off dead material and leaving healthy trees to flourish. The park became a living laboratory for scientists to observe first-hand how a forest system can regenerate in the aftermath of a fire.

In 1989, grass flourished in the ash-rich soil, followed by young trees. Flowers were seen blooming that had not been seen in the park in recent memory. It became apparent to scientists that a fire of this magnitude was required to stimulate new growth, though it will take decades for the forest to recover to pre-fire conditions.

Western conifers burn when temperatures are high and plants and soil are dry as in 1988 with abnormally high temperatures and a lack of rainfall. Warmer and dryer conditions are becoming more common on the west coast of North America, from central Alaska down to California. The winter of 2014-15 saw temperatures above seasonal averages from Alaska down through California.  Snowpack levels along the west coast were low, ranging from slightly below average to historic lows.

Canada, Australia and the U.S. are the top three nations in the world in terms of protecting forests and grasslands. (Photo courtesy of Great Slave Helicopters)


Lack of snow in Alaska, caused the start of the Iditarod Race to be moved 250 kilometers north from Anchorage to Fairbanks. At the beginning of March, snowpack on Vancouver Island was at 15 per cent. Southwestern B.C. has similar levels, while levels in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Colorado are below 40 per cent. Levels in California are at five per cent, an all-time low and the situation has been exacerbated by a continuing drought.

The snowpack is crucial to maintaining healthy forests and the ecosystems the forest support. Think of snowpack as a savings account for water. In times of plenty, usually during the winter, water is deposited as snow and held on account. During the spring and into most summers, the snowpack will release water gradually, the same as drawing an allowance. An adequate snowpack will also suck up rain like a sponge and hold it for later release as well. With warmer temperatures over the west coast in winter, snowpacks do not develop as most precipitation falls as rain and simply runs downhill following its normal course back to the ocean and there is no water on deposit to draw on later.

By the beginning of March, the B.C. Wildfire Management Branch was already issuing warnings about the potential for an earlier than usual start to the wildfire season. Officials in Kamloops described grass and small shrubs in the region as unseasonably dry and a similar warning was issued for the Kootenays as well. This is the time of year that prescribed burns are carried out, in order to mitigate the danger of fire by removing fuel sources.

Fire ecologist Bob Grey told the CBC that fuels drying out this early can lead to earlier fires and more damaging fires later in the summer. Prescribed burns are part of the mitigation strategy that comes under the all hazards approach governments are taking at all levels in emergency planning. The protocols that enable fire management to operate at local, regional and province-wide levels, through CIFFC for inter-provincial cooperation and ultimately at an international level of emergency response can be applied to any other threat to communities such as earthquakes, floods, extreme weather and even pandemics to name a few.

Being prepared for the threat of wildfire or any other potential emergency is everybody’s responsibility, from local residents and their community leaders, forest companies and other industries, our provincial governments and ultimately the federal government.

One lesson learned from the Yellowstone summer of 1988 is that it was a mistake to have a blanket policy on allowing certain fires to burn unchecked. Today, it is understood that allowing some fires to burn freely is not a bad thing, but if the fire is allowed to burn for too long it may grow beyond the capability of humans to contain it.

Fire management options today range from outright extinction to no intervention, but the decision whether to fight any particular fire or to let it burn is based on a broad set of priorities and each situation must be based on its own merits. The priority in any situation is human life and that includes firefighting personnel.

Protecting the Masses
Canada, Australia and the U.S. are the top three nations in the world in terms of protecting forests and grasslands from fire. While technology and methodology have improved the effectiveness of firefighting, wildfires still cause considerable destruction. Australia has suffered horrendous wildfire seasons in recent years and has sought assistance from Canadian and American fire managers, engaging in exchange programs in order to gain knowledge and share experience.

Wildcat works year-round in aerial firefighting. (Photo courtesy of Wildcat Helicopters)


A number of Canadian helicopter operators including Wildcat, Coulson, Tasman and Valhalla are working year round in firefighting, going to Australia during the Canadian winter season. Australia is the driest of all inhabited continents. At any given time, large parts of the country have suffered droughts on a regular, recurring basis. Australian bushfires can be particularly severe as eucalyptus trees contain large amounts of oil which can burn very fast and very hot. Other factors which have contributed to the severity of bushfires include high fuel loads and not building adequate buffer zones to protect residences and other structures.

Australia and its fire scene may seem a world removed from Canada, but closer to home, California is on the brink of total disaster. California is now four years into the worst drought the state has ever seen, and water use is under increasingly strict regulation. This year’s record low snowpack can only make the situation worse. Traditionally, the worst time for wildfires was from late summer through autumn, but now due to conditions across the state fire season goes year round.

Speaking to the LA Times, Bill Patzert, a climatologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said that with the combination of high temperatures and dry vegetation, the West is “primed for fire” and to make matters worse, rainstorms are unlikely before November this year. He went on to day “the drought is not going to get any better between now and the fall. We are in an incendiary situation.”

We can learn much from Australia and California in terms of cause and effect, but we also need to pay close attention to what is happening across Western Canada to give us a hint of what our own future may look like.

A recent study published in the journal Nature Geosciences says that 70 per cent of glaciers in Alberta and British Columbia could disappear by the end of the 21st century. Lead author of the report, Gary Clark, professor emeritus of Glaciology in UBC’s department of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences told media that glaciers don’t get confused by one hot summer or a single cold winter.

The snowpack is an annual event, but glaciers are a lifetime event. The impact of losing the water currently stored in the 10,000 square miles of glaciers in Alberta and British Columbia goes far beyond disappointing tourists. There will be a significant impact on the fisheries that depend on specific water levels in rivers and lakes, potential loss of available water for B.C.’s network of hydro-electric generating facilities and a number of key industries in both provinces that depend on large volumes of water.

Beyond that, there are a number of projects either proposed or in development that will see pipelines, mines, oil and gas exploration and other developments in areas in remote areas of the western provinces and up into the Arctic. As the Arctic ice continues to recede and the North West Passage opens up we could see development right to the shores of the Arctic Ocean.  As these areas are developed, the threat of fire grows and the threat of wildfire to this infrastructure will make it mandatory that the means exist to fight these fires.


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