USA, Canada: Tragic wildfires will continue until we rethink our communities
By Eric B. Kennedy, Assistant Professor, Disaster and Emergency Management, York University, Canada
In the early morning hours of Nov. 8, 2018, thousands of Californians fled their homes as flames from the Camp Fire advanced on the town of Paradise.
Their attempts to flee were captured in dramatic stories, harrowing narratives and shocking videos. A month after the fire began, the death toll sits at 85 with three people still missing. Almost 19,000 buildings were lost.
The Camp and Woolsey fires have spurred much commentary from researchers who study forestry and wildfire. Thanks to presidential provocation, there has been significant discussion of what role forest management can and can’t play in preventing wildfires, as well as the many different strategies and their respective benefits. Climate researchers have also been quick to point out the role that climate change can play in when fires start and how they grow.
Importantly, some attention has also been given to the critical role that development plays in our vulnerability to wildfire. This point is crucial: wildfires are a natural phenomenon and many ecosystems depend on their regular occurrence.
It isn’t until humans put themselves in these environments that these fires gain the potential to become disasters. When we build and live and work and play in flammable places, we create the risk of wildfire tragedies.
We need to stop thinking about wildfire as something that happens “out there in the wilderness,” with occasional incursions into our developments, and instead see just how tightly interwoven we are with the fire.
Fuel for the fire
There are two profoundly uncomfortable realities that we need to face head-on.
First, there has been lots more talk about the “wildland-urban interface” as a key component of today’s wildfires (in other words, that communities share boundaries with flammable landscapes). But the Camp Fire warns us that this metaphor might be problematically limited. Tragic wildfires aren’t an “interface” or boundary problem, but rather a mix of the urban and wildland: fires are just as eager to feed on homes as they are to feed on trees.
As a result, we must take steps to create defensible spaces around our homes. This can include simple actions like keeping eavestroughs clear of debris and flammable plants away from homes.
While these steps can help protect properties from the flames, this is connected to a second challenge: what if we don’t have enough notice to evacuate because the fire started right next door?
Understanding these two challenges requires knowing a bit more about wildfire and our quest to fight it.
Fighting for life
Wildfires are commonplace in California — and across most of North America — but dramatic losses of life have been rare in Canada and the United States in the past several decades. The 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., for instance, resulted in a similarly hurried evacuation of more than 80,000 from the city and surrounding area. The outcome was better than feared: only two lives were lost in an automotive accident a day later.
But look a little further into North American history, when tragic fires occurred with a frightening regularity. A century ago in Matheson, Ont., a wildfire consumed villages in minutes and levelled forests. The official death toll read 244, but local estimates suggested 500 were killed. In the nearby community of Nushka, Ont., population 300, only eight people remained after the fire. During the early 19th and 20th centuries, fires in Wisconsin, Maine, Minnesota and Michigan killed between 168 and 1,500 people apiece.
Much has changed since these fires of a century ago. Firefighting power has grown dramatically, with agencies like CalFire leading the charge. At its peak, more than 5,600 personnel were involved in the fight against the Camp Fire, with air tankers the size of a Boeing 747 joining the support efforts by dropping chemical retardants from above.
Fire managers also have a much more robust and scientific understanding of how to predict fire behaviour. Using a combination of computer models and data from historical experiments, they’re better able to anticipate how a fire and its smoke might spread in the days ahead.
Living with fire
It’s no accident that the story of wildfire is often told through the narrative of fights and battles.
Since those deadly fires of the 1900s, we’ve tried to fight our way out of the wildfire problem with increasingly large armies of firefighters, engines and aircraft. While federal, provincial and state agencies have worked hard in the past few decades to increase the role of prescribed and natural fire to reduce the potential for later catastrophic blazes, the idea of a fight has remained.
But we’re not addressing some uncomfortable realities. For one, we’ve long seen wildfire as a wildland problem: flames that consume trees and surge occasionally into communities. But a fire in search of fuel makes no distinction between trees and homes, sheds, vehicles or propane tanks. As more people build and live in these flammable landscapes, wildfires look more and more like massive urban conflagrations, which can overwhelm urban firefighting response.
There’s strong evidence, for instance, that few homes are ignited by the massive flames of the wildfire itself. Instead, they’re lit by embers that proceed and follow the fire front. These embers can take hold in wood piles, decks, shingles, air vents and eavestroughs, transforming a tiny spark into a full-blown house fire.
Coexistence with wildfire
This means that simple steps like those advocated by FireSmart in Canada and FireWise in the U.S. can help homes survive. In the best-case scenario, individuals and communities have emergency plans and preparations ready.
Yet, virtually all of these plans in Canada and the U.S. are predicated on having the time to get people out of harm’s way. If the fire is sparked nearby, driven by powerful winds or occurs at a time we don’t expect it, those plans may not work. As the Fort McMurray and Paradise fires have shown, we can’t assume there will be time to evacuate.
We face significant challenges with climate change, forest management and patterns of growth in forested landscapes. But, these two realities — that our developments are adding fuel to the fire, and that we cannot assume a convenient window for evacuation — tell us that we need re-imagine how we will coexist with wildfire.
Could we design communities that allowed fire to safely wash over them, without requiring firefighters to be placed in harm’s way? Can we create alternatives to harried evacuations, knowing that we’ll never be able to perfectly predict where fires will start? And, can we get community buy-in to accept prescribed fire and maintain wildfire preparedness, rather than pushing for ever-larger armies to fight them?
Wildfire has always and will always be a part of our landscapes, and if we choose to live in these flammable incendiaries, we need to do so in a way that will reduce the potential for tragedy.