Wildfires in Canada have so far burned forests the size of the state of Virginia. The province of Quebec recorded its largest fire ever this month as it advanced through an area 13 times the size of New York. Megafires, so vast and ferocious that they simply cannot be fought, have erupted across the country.

Even as thousands of Canadians and firefighters from overseas continued to fight more than 900 fires, Canada record-breaking wildfire season made it clear that traditional firefighting methods are no longer sufficient, say wildfire and forest experts.

Instead of focusing on putting out flames, fire agencies, provincial governments and the logging industry need to implement fundamental changes to prevent fires from starting and spreading in the first place, they say.

They include steps like closing forests to people when conditions are ripe for fires and increasing 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 expected to become increasingly difficult to fight as they grow more frequent and larger in the warmer and 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 wildfires,” said Yves Bergeron, an expert in forest ecology and management at the University of Quebec. “We need a paradigm shift from viewing the role of wildfire agencies as putting out fires to protecting human society.”

In Canada, fire agencies and provincial governments have been fighting wildfires the way they always have, experts say: by responding to outbreaks of fires by trying to suppress them or prevent them from spreading, or by letting remote fires away from communities and vital infrastructure simply burn.

Some provinces followed by banning the use of fire in forests and then closing forests altogether.

But so many fires erupted across Canada at once — even in eastern provinces like Quebec and Nova Scotia, which don’t typically experience the kind of frequent outbreaks in western Canada — that wildfire agencies were overwhelmed, even with overseas reinforcements.

Quebec’s agency, with the capacity to fight about 30 fires at once, was faced with three to four times as many, experts said.

With a few months left in the wildfire season, the result has already been nearly 28 million acres of forest burned, a record for a single wildfire season and five times the annual average.

More than 155,000 people were evacuated from their homes at some point, some more than once, and three firefighters were killed. Smoke from the fires flowed down into the United States and across to Western Europe, darkening the sky and making the air quality dangerous.

“We were too reactive,” said Michael Flanniganfire management expert at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.

In provinces where human activity is suspected of causing fires, such as Alberta and Nova Scotia, officials have implemented fire bans and closed forests, but only after fires had already ignited and spread, and even though conditions before the outbreaks indicated a high risk, Mr. Flannigan said.

“Alberta and Nova Scotia both used forest closures this year, but they used them too late, after the fires had burned across the landscape,” Mr. Flannigan said. “In Alberta’s case, you could see this upper ridge, this extreme weather event — hot, dry and windy — coming a week ahead.”

Forest closures are “very unpopular but very effective at stopping human-caused fires”, Mr Flannigan said.

Political leaders are reluctant to close forests, and even then only gradually, experts say, in part because of loss of revenue and the unpopularity of closing access to public lands.

But closing forests early when conditions grow extremely risky — and eliminating human activity that can ignite fires, from recreational camping to the use of all-terrain vehicles — means the restrictions can be lifted fairly quickly, experts said.

Cordy Tymstrawildfire management consultant and former science coordinator with Alberta’s Wildfire Management agency, said Canadian provinces should follow the example of Australia, another country that often faces major fires and where forests automatically close when certain weather conditions exist.

“We have to go to an apolitical approach or an automated system,” Mr. Tymstra said. “Sorry, the forest is closed. You can’t drive your ATV down that road.”

It is critical to close forests early in the face of extremely hot, dry and windy conditions because any resulting fires typically lead to the greatest destruction. In Canada, three percent of wildfires account for 97 percent of burned forests, Mr. Flannigan said.

In places where wildfires tend to be caused by lightning like British Columbia, Mr. Tymstra said, patrols should be increased on risky days. The strategy should be to spot fires as soon as possible to take advantage of a small window of perhaps as little as 20 minutes to try to 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 get past a certain size,” Mr. Tymstra said.

“This year has been a very loud call for change,” he added. “We need a transformative change, a big rethink.”

Canada, whose vast boreal forest is considered one of the world’s largest terrestrial carbon vaults, must change policy to both mitigate and prevent fires, experts said.

In Quebec, the fire agency has historically focused on putting out fires in commercially viable logging sites, Mr. Bergeron said. It should refocus on making communities and infrastructure more resilient to fires, for example, by creating buffers consisting of less flammable trees or plants.

Reducing or eliminating power lines running through forests would reduce wildfires, experts said. Managed burns, common in some parts of the western United States, could be used to reduce the flammability of forests.

Encouraging the logging industry to cut in mosaic patterns could slow the spread of fires. Encouraging the industry to plant faster-growing but commercially less valuable tree species, such as jack pine, would speed up forest regeneration.

But these changes would be expensive and some, like those related to logging, would require delicate negotiations with politically powerful industry. Reforms should also take place in each of the provinces that are in charge of fighting fires in their territories.

Wildfire agencies have slowly moved out of their traditional “comfort zone” of just focusing on putting out fires, Mr. Tymstra said.

“The model of fighting all the fires all the time, we’re losing,” Mr Flannigan said. “The burned area in Canada has doubled since the 1970s,” he said, driven “largely, not solely, by human-caused climate change.”

This year’s wildfires — as well as a string of record temperatures in Canada’s far north — have pushed the issue of how to manage the country’s forests as the country and the rest of the world warm.

With climate change, Canada’s fire season is starting earlier in the spring and ending later in the fall. The largest and most destructive fires have grown in size in recent decades and are expected to continue to grow, it said. Yan Boulangera forest ecology expert at the Canadian Forest Service who worked on modeling how Canadian forests will evolve.

“It’s going to get harder and harder to fight these big fires,” Mr Boulanger said. “The more severe the climate becomes, the fires will become more intense in the amount of energy they release. We’ve seen this year that some fires release so much energy that they couldn’t be fought directly by water-bombing planes, much less by firefighters on the ground.”

“These fires are going to be a lot more intense and we’re going to have a lot more of them,” Mr. Boulanger said, adding that the resulting smoke “will reach the United States, maybe not every year, but very often.”

By admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *