There is a new version of the old South Park classic Blame Canada circulating on line as wildfire smoke has choked cities along the Eastern Seaboard and into the Midwest. While the song is tongue-in-cheek, the fires are in Canada and the responsibility lies with provincial, municipal and federal authorities to deal with them. But Canada is not alone. The next tracks on the album could be Blame California, Blame Indonesia, Blame Spain and Blame Brazil. All of those jurisdictions have shared their smoke with neighbours and with the world in the past few years. While the reasons for the increase in wildfires are many, human caused Climate Change is the primary accelerant and it is leading to a change in the scale and behaviour of wild fires. The warning signs have been there for some time.
Is this Tatooine? Or suburban Canada?
It is almost exactly seven years since the residents of Fort McMurray, Alberta were allowed to return to their homes after one of the most horrifying wildfires ever to strike Canada. At least those who were fortunate enough to still have homes. More than 2,500 homes, businesses and other structures were destroyed by the fire, which forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 people.
At the time, I watched from my then home base in Jakarta, Indonesia, a country that had experienced its worst wildfire season ever, the year before. In 2015, fires burned 2.6 million hectares between July and September of that year, causing a choking miasma in Singapore to the North and ranging as far as Malaysia and Thailand. It was estimated at the time that the fires released as much carbon dioxide as India’s annual emissions. Thus, I was familiar with large scale wildfires and their climate, health, social, economic and political impacts.
The Fort Mac fire was different, however, in that it made me think differently about the boreal forest that covers so much of my homeland. The fire was described as a monster that burned so fiercely that it created its own weather systems. Firefighters described houses that burned to the ground in five minutes flat. The smoke affected air quality as far away as the Eastern Seaboard of the US and Canada. Ultimately, the fire consumed more than half a million hectares and cost more than $4 Billion in losses.
I sat, mesmerized by the news and with deep foreboding. For the first time, I thought of Canada’s beautiful boreal forests not as a place of refuge where we cottaged and camped in the summer and skied in the Winter as kids but as a threat. A bomb that would only grow more dangerous and unstable as Climate Change got worse. At the time, I still had to use the hashtag #ClimateChangeIsReal in my social posts because there was so much skepticism about warming and its cause. I was not sure when, but I was certain that we would see our forests on fire from coast-to-coast-to-coast.
That time has come. A brutal fire season in Alberta started early in April causing tens of thousands to leave their homes. In late May an unprecedented wildfire attacked the suburbs of Halifax, Nova Scotia, a port city better known for fog and driving rain than for hot dry wildfire weather. Now, more than 100 fires are burning in Quebec with dozens listed as “out of control”. To-date, more than 3.7 million hectares have burned, more than 14 times than normal for this early in the season.
Wildfires are local tragedies with regional and often global impacts. On Tuesday, May 6th, policy makers and citizens in the nation’s capital of Ottawa awoke to the worst air quality index ever and by the next day, New York City had air quality worse than that of Delhi. This morning, much of the Eastern Seaboard is waking up to orange skies and smoky air that stings the back of the throat. Hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses have doubled in some places and we can expect cardiovascular problems to ram up as well. Dr. Courtney Howard, an ER physician based in Yellowknife and board member of Global Climate and Health Alliance says that no studies have yet been done on the long term impacts of wildfire smoke but that there are risks for those with pre-existing conditions. The threat of wildfires is no longer something that is tragic but distant but a clear and present danger.
Some are asking whether this is the “new normal”. Professor Mike Flannigan Research Chair for Predictive Services, Emergency Management and Fire Science at Thompson River University in British Columbia derides the term, stating that “new normal” implies a static situation when, in fact, things will only get worse if nothing is done.
So, what can be done? Obviously, urgent action needs to be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but even the most optimistic scenarios say that a certain level of warming is now baked in and we will potentially be dealing with these weather patterns for the foreseeable future. That means that we all need to look at how to prevent and fight wildfires in the first place.
The obvious place to start is with prevention. In the wise words of Smokey Bear, “only YOU can prevent wildfires”. While many of the current fires currently burning in Canada may have been started by lightning, a significant proportion of fires have human causes. Cigarette butts, sparks from a campfire, even the exhaust of an ATV can all start a fire and, as populations grow, more humans will live, work and play in areas susceptible to fire. Alberta responded to the fires in May by closing many of its provincial parks and banning open fires and trail riding on ATVs among other things and it reduced new ignitions. Nova Scotia’s government was so alarmed that it banned all activity in forested areas and imposed fines of $25,000 for violations. Clearly there needs to be a broader and more proactive policy response by government at all levels is needed. Experts have suggested everything from far tighter restrictions on open fires at all times of the year to zoning changes limiting human encroachment on forested lands to building codes requiring the use of less combustible materials in home construction. Forest management needs to be looked at carefully to see whether certain practices are making things worse and Indigenous peoples need to be brought into the discussion in a substantive manner.
Secondly, more resources need to be applied to fighting the fires once they start. Prof. Flannigan has suggested that the Canadian Federal Government needs to become more involved in what has been to-date, primarily a provincial jurisdiction. He lauded the effectiveness of the Canadian Interagency Coordination Centre in Winnipeg but said that it needs access to more resources like a national fleet of firefighting aircraft that could be deployed where most needed and the training of many more initial attack teams that could get in to stop the fires before they get too large to manage. One issue that Canada faces is a decline in the number of firefighters, particularly the volunteers that make up the bulk of the 126,000 that the country now has, down from more than 150,000 less than a decade ago. One suggestion from firefighter groups is to increase the tax credit received by volunteer firefighters from $3000 annually to $10,000.
All these ideas are important, but we need to think globally. Wildfires have worsened of late in the US, particularly in California, Oregon and Washington. Australia had a terrible season in 2019 and 2020 where many communities were burned and millions of animals including tens of thousands of Koalas were killed or lost their habitat. Europe endured a bad season last year and these events will only get more frequent as average temperatures rise.
Countries like Canada already have agreements with agencies and there are now firefighters from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa and Spain. Canadians and Americans deployed to Australia in 2019/20 during the Northern Winter. But there needs to be a far more concerted policy response involving more countries. For example, Russia has massive boreal forests that are just as vulnerable as Canada’s. Smoke from Siberian fires have frequently drifted over to North America, borne by the jet stream. Singapore regularly endures horrible air quality that is entirely beyond its control due to fires in Indonesia, many of which were deliberately set to clear land for oil palm plantations. In Brazil, funding from carbon credits has preserved millions of hectares of rainforest by giving communities income and livelihoods that incentivizes preservation. Thousands of firefighters need to be trained globally. More agencies need to hire them permanently and think deliberately and globally about how they can be in the Northern and Southern fire seasons.
This fire season is bringing home climate change in a close and immediate fashion to the Eastern Seaboard of North America, but the reflection needs to global and so does the policy response.