Wednesday July 26, 2017

World on fire: What wildfires teach us about living in the forest and a challenging climate

HIghlights from World on Fire 1:54

Listen to Full Episode 54:00

They're bigger, faster and hotter than before, torching more of our world: Wildfires, like those now ravaging the interior of British Columbia, the one that ripped through Fort McMurray last year, or through Slave Lake, Alberta in 2011, levelling a third of that community. What's fuelling this increase in fire power? Adrienne Lamb explores the factors altering how we have to live with wildfire. New technology and new ways to think about fire and its behaviour could save lives. **This episode originally aired May 16, 2016.


"We're going to have more megafires, they're going to burn longer and more savagely.  If we do nothing the future looks pretty bleak. But there's no reason for us to do nothing" -- Stephen Pyne

loon lake bc wildfires

Fires have burned more of B.C. this year than any year since 1961. (Shawn Cahill)

Fire has been humanity's constant companion, from our earliest caves to our modern gas fireplaces. It's given us comfort and amusement, cooked our food and warmed our lives. But it's also been a devastating killer, and an arch-nemesis. 

In the interior of British Columbia, some of the more than 40,000 people evacuated from wildfires are beginning to trickle home.  But some towns are still empty, still threatened by fire.  According to the BC Wildfire Service, so far this year -- since April 1 alone -- upwards of 750 fires have destroyed over 370,00 hectares in the province.  

The wildfire in Fort McMurray last year, had thousands fleeing for their lives. But it's not the first time this has happened. Six years ago, the town of Slave Lake, Alberta was devastated by another wildfire. When that one was finally out and the toll added up, it was then the third costliest natural disaster, leaving behind 700 million dollars in damage, and a third of the town reduced to ash.

"It was like being in an oven while it's turned on and have been someone sandblast you with hot embers at the same time you know you're choking you can't see and everything around you is on fire."  -- Jamie Coutts

Thousands of people lost their homes, their cars, basically everything they owned. There's been more loss in Fort McMurray -- at least 2,400 buildings burned, and over 500,000 hectares torched. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the fire is the most expensive natural disaster ever in this country, costing an estimated 3.58 billion dollars in damages.  It is now considered 'under control' and almost all residents have returned to the city, although some neighbourhoods were completely destroyed.

People talk about these horrendous fires in Northern Alberta as once-in-a-lifetime occurrences. But experts tell us differently.  

"In Canada we keep really good records and there's no question that we are seeing an increase in area burned. The last three years have been four million hectares or above and our running average is 2 million hectares so we've doubled our fire activity in the last few years, and that 2 million hectares is a doubling of the 1970's average area burned. We see a doubling then. So there's no question there's more fire in the landscape compared to the 1970's. As we continue to warm, we're going to experience more. There are also good records from the United States, Alaska, these are all showing very sharp increases in fire activity in the last few decades." -- Mike Flannigan

After decades of treating fire as the enemy, we've disrupted the earth's natural cycles and created a build-up of fuel. At the same time, we've cozied up to nature, building homes, resorts, even entire towns embedded in the very green space that could fuel the flames -- and set the stage for ever more and ever larger wildfires.

Guests in the program:

  • Jamie Coutts, Regional Fire Chief, Lesser Slave Regional Fire Service. 

  • Mike Flannigan, Professor with the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta and the Director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science located in Edmonton, Alberta. 

  • Kevin Tolhurst, Associate Professor Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne, Creswick Campus. 

  • Stephen Pyne, Professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. 

  • Ryan Coutts, Firesmart Education Officer, Province of Alberta, Slave Lake, Alberta.

  • Ken Giblin, Retired Real Estate Agent, Slave Lake, Alberta. 

  • Tyler Warman, Mayor of Slave Lake, Alberta.

  • Janet Parks, Childcare worker, Slave Lake Childcare Society, Slave Lake, Alberta. 

  • Mike Turcotte, Coordinator, Slave Lake Wildfire Management Area, Slave Lake, Alberta.

  • Sharon Green, Executive Director, Slave Lake Childcare Society, Slave Lake, Alberta. 

  • Doug Babiy, Dealer, Slave Lake Ford, Slave Lake, Alberta. 
  • Remona Gullion, Parts department employee, Slave Lake Ford, Slave Lake, Alberta. 

Scientists are researching wind and weather, questioning what they thought they knew about wildfire and its behaviour. They're growing it with computer simulations, or using test burns. One experiment was done in Carrot Lake, British Columbia in 2013. Researchers from the BC Wildfire Service and Natural Resources Canada set a test fire, and recorded what happened from inside the inferno, using a special insulated camera.

Related Websites:

Reading List:

  • Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America. Stephen Pyne, University of Arizona Press, 2015.
  • Fire: Nature and Culture. Stephen Pyne, Reaktion Books Ltd., London, England, 2012.
  • The Sky Was On Fire: Slave Lake's Story of Disaster, Exodus, And New Beginnings. Len Ramsey, Nicola Ramsey, Joe McWilliams and MJ Kristoff. Published by The Slave Lake Book Committee, 2012.