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Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast, by John Vaillant. Knopf Canada, 2023.
Dark Days at Noon: The Future of Fire, by Edward Struzik. McGill-Queens University Press, 2022.
Wildfires are in the news headlines this summer. In August the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui burned down with hundreds of lives lost. The 22,000 residents of Yellowknife were evacuated as huge wildfires raged in the Northwest Territories. The city of Kelowna B.C. and the North Shuswap area have both been under assault from burning forests on all sides.
Two recent publications by Canadian authors couldn’t be more timely, as Canada and other countries are reeling from the unprecedented extent and intensity of wildfires this year. These accounts offer lessons for us, now that these conflagrations have become a regular feature of our springs and summers.
Fire Weather describes the monster wildfire that nearly destroyed the city of Fort McMurray, Alberta in May 2016. It seems a supreme irony that this disaster, fueled by climate change, took place at the epicentre of Canada’s oil sands industry. The author frames his harrowing narrative of the attack on Fort Mac within a well-documented jeremiad about the contribution of fossil-fuel production and consumption to our rapidly-warming biosphere.
What does Vaillant mean by the term “fire weather”? In recent years the boreal forest that encircles the Northern Hemisphere has undergone warmer temperatures and lower humidity, dehydrating the trees and ground cover and thereby providing perfect conditions for ignition.
With every degree of warming, there is a 12 percent increase in lightning activity, a common cause of wildfires…. The drier the fuel and the hotter the air, the more explosive the fires, the more intensely they burn, the harder they are to extinguish, and the more likely they are to produce their own weather in the form of wind and pyrocumulus clouds, which can generate fire whirls, tornadoes, and more lightning, resulting in yet more fires that will perpetuate themselves for as long as fuel and weather conditions allow.
Apart from lightning, human activity — whether inadvertent or intentional — often initiates wildfires. Vehicle exhaust, campfires, cigarette butts, train wheels on steel rails, and even hikers knocking rocks together can spark a flareup in a dry forest. Black spruce trees, the primary species in the Alberta boreal, “with their exceptionally flammable sap, resinous cones and needles, and pitch-infused wood, [provide] a naturally recurring incendiary…. Add drought conditions, noonday heat, and a stiff wind, and you’ll get something closer to a blowtorch.”
Fire Weather reads like a thriller in its depiction of the dragon’s invasion of Fort McMurray, the desperate defensive tactics of the firefighters, and the last-minute evacuation of the city’s 88,000 residents. Massive earth-moving bulldozers from the nearby bitumen mines were employed to create firebreaks, even plowing down huge houses to deny fuel to the beast. The fire hopscotched around various neighbourhoods for more than a week before leaving town.
It seems miraculous that no lives were lost in the Fort Mac fire, although property damage was extensive. (Two evacuees died in a car accident.). The author humanizes his story by including several personal anecdotes from survivors. Many people lost their homes, and the trauma of the experience still haunts many more. Sirens and smoky skies can trigger PTSD.
Vaillant argues that humans have created a perfect set of conditions for catastrophic fires in what he calls the Petrocene era. Many towns and cities have been built adjacent to forests, and this Wildland-Urban Interface now poses high wildfire risks to large populations. The forests themselves have not been well managed, as aggressive fire suppression policies, the draining of wetlands, clear-cutting and monoculture reforestation have rendered the woods more vulnerable to uncontrollable wildfires. Toxic wildfire smoke can distribute respiratory-health hazards across the continent.
But the major culprit, of course, is a rapidly-warming climate. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we have depended on fossil fuels — wood, then coal, and more recently oil and gas — for the energy to power our manufacturing and transportation, to heat (and cool) our buildings. Vaillant refers to modern-day humanity as “Homo flagrans”, Burning Man. The use of fire is our hallmark, but its by-products have prompted a backflash in the forest.
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Edward Struzik’s volume, Dark Days at Noon, is a lavishly illustrated history of wildfire activity in North America over the past two centuries. His introduction includes a tart critique of the best-known Canadian historians for their neglect of “plants and animals, forests and fens, droughts and floods, wildfires and climate, and other environmental forces [that] have shaped the cultural and economic development of Canada”. In subsequent chapters Struzik draws upon the popular press of the day for colourful tales of the frequent deadly wildfires that occurred over many years, accompanied in these glossy pages by a fascinating array of contemporary photographs, paintings and drawings. With these high production values, Dark Days at Noon resembles a coffee-table art book.
The development of railroads across the continent is often cited as a crucial element of nation-building for Canada and the United States. But Struzik indicts the railroads for causing many forest fires “because of sparking train wheels, embers spewing from the chimneys of … locomotives, and hot ash that was routinely shovelled out and left along the side of the tracks in the middle of sunbaked forests. Entire towns were burned down to the ground in this way.”
Whatever their origin, gigantic out-of-control blazes in the boreal have been a regular feature of the North American landscape for many generations. The author outlines the development of research in fire science to better understand and combat wildfires. Governments in Canada and the U.S. funded experimental burn projects. It was determined that rather than trying to douse them everywhere, it was more prudent to let fires burn themselves out unless they threatened populated areas. This allowed the natural process of regeneration in the forest. When wildfires needed to be stopped, the technique of igniting firebreaks to rob them of fuel became a common strategy.
However, Struzik observes that the explosion of fossil-fuel operations in the western provinces and states has compromised these fire-control methods. “It was increasingly impossible to let nature take its course as climate change — spurred on by those greenhouse gas emissions from heavy oil, fracking and more traditional oil and gas and pipeline developments — set the stage for even more fires. Tried and true strategies such as “let-burn” and “prescribed burns” became increasingly difficult to allow.”
The historical analysis in Dark Days at Noon often highlights the lack of coordination among local, regional and national agencies in training for, identifying and fighting wildfires. Financial support from various levels of government has waxed and waned over the decades. It is clearly time for a more nimble and consistent response. Prime Minister Trudeau has proposed a federal umbrella organization, perhaps along the lines of FEMA in the U.S.
The fire-breathing dragons in the forest continue to pose difficult questions for firefighters, insurers, planners and policy-makers. 200,000 Canadians have been displaced from their homes by wildfires this year. How can we better support these folks? Some of them won’t have homes to go back to. Does it make sense to rebuild in places where the heat and the wildfire risk are highest, like Lytton B.C.? (Flood-prone areas present similar quandaries.)
The record-setting 2023 fire season in Canada may become the new baseline. How can we adapt more effectively to these disasters? An article in the latest issue of Maclean’s offers the following suggestions: “Better emergency management, upgraded building codes, more resilient infrastructure and investment in public health and mental-health supports”.
Clearly the larger imperative is decarbonization of the environment, in order to defuse the conditions that promote catastrophic wildfires in the first place. Forests are touted as carbon sinks, but when they burn they become carbon bombs.
Ross Thrasher has enjoyed a 30-year career as a librarian at post-secondary institutions in Canada, the U.S. and the South Pacific. Most recently he served for 8 years as Library Director at Mount Royal College in Calgary, leading the library’s transition to university status. He maintains an active interest in literature, travel and the performing arts. Especially satire.