Firestorm: Fort McMurray wildfire is a warning, book claims

The wildfire that enveloped Fort McMurray in the spring of 2016 is a harbinger of things to come, Edmonton journalist Ed Struzik concludes in his new book, Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape our Future.

'This isn't going to go away; it's going to get a lot worse'

Smoke and flames from the wildfires erupt behind a car on the highway near Fort McMurray, Alta., May 7, 2016. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

The wildfire that enveloped Fort McMurray in the spring of 2016 is a harbinger of things to come, Edmonton journalist Ed Struzik concludes in his new book, Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape our Future.

Megafires like the one that burned out of control in the northern Alberta community for two months in Canada's costliest natural disaster, could soon become commonplace across North America, Struzik said.

These natural disasters are becoming the new normal, said the writer and photographer, who paints an apocalyptic picture of what will happen if we continue "business as usual."

"Fort McMurray was a harbinger of what's coming down the pipe and I think that this year demonstrated that it's maybe coming a lot faster than a lot people anticipated," Struzik said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"I think that everybody's underestimating how quickly the forests are going to burn here."

Struzik spent months interviewing the leading experts in wildfire science and management to pen his new book, which explores the leading research on the natural phenomena.

The experts were clear in their projections that wildfires will continue to escalate in severity and frequency in the coming decades, putting hundreds of Canadian communities at risk, Struzik said.  

"This isn't going to go away; it's going to get a lot worse," he said.

'We didn't let nature regenerate'

Old growth forests require fire to regenerate to maintain a healthy ecosystem, said Struzik. But longstanding policies have created a landscape riddled with overgrown forests which are a tinderbox of "kindling" for a potential megafire.

"One of the big problems is, that we suppressed fires for so long," Struzik said.

"Since the turn of the century, it was the policy of every agency in the country and every province in the Canadian Forest Service to fight fires. We didn't let nature regenerate."

'It's prime to burn'

Higher temperatures, stronger winds, and drought conditions paired with shorter winters are the perfect formula for igniting megafires in communities encircled by forest, he said.

"The national park communities of Jasper and Banff are pretty classic examples. Banff, especially because of Sulfur Mountain," Struzik said.

"You have a forest on that mountain overlooking the townsite which is over 100 years old. It's prime to burn, it probably should have burned and it didn't burn."

Struzik visited areas scorched by wildfire in communities from Alaska to Maine, and conducted intensive interviews with scientists, firefighters and resource managers on the front lines.

He also provides a detailed account of Fort McMurray's devastating Horse River Fire which consumed more than 2,000 structures, triggered the evacuation of 90,000 people and was described as "the beast" for its unpredictable power. 

Many experts are making the case for a radically different approach to managing wildfires, one which focuses on controlled burns, and building community infrastructure designed to minimize or withstand the damage.

The book has garnered a powerful response from members of the public keen to prepare for the "new normal," Struzik said.
As bad as the Fort McMurray wildfire of 2016 was, it's only a harbinger of what's to come. That's the conclusion Ed Struzik makes, in his book "Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape our Future." 4:56

The recent spate of deadly and destructive wildfires has made the urgency of the situation real for his readers.

"I think there are a lot of solutions and we can talk about them," he said. "It's been phenomenal and I think part of it has been the B.C. fires this year and then Waterton and California.

"It's been perfect, but sad timing."

Listen to Edmonton AM with host Mark Connolly, weekday mornings at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the morning crew on Twitter @EdmAMCBC.