Monday July 17, 2017

Canada not prepared for 'inevitable' wildfires, says environmental expert

A year after Fort McMurray, did Canada make the necessary adjustments to our wildfire policy?

A year after Fort McMurray, did Canada make the necessary adjustments to our wildfire policy? (Terry Reith/CBC)

Listen 15:59

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Across B.C., 40,000 people live in communities that are under evacuation order due to raging wildfires. Another 17,000 are on alert.

The numbers are dramatic, but not exceptional.

Just last year, fire tore through Fort McMurray, Alta., forcing more than 90,000 people to leave, in the largest fire evacuation in the province's history.

"These fires now are so intense," says Ed Struzik, author of Firestorm, How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future and fellow with the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen's University.

 "As Fort McMurray demonstrated, they behave in ways that just completely flabbergast veteran firefighters."

The Fort McMurray fire should have been a catalyst for change across the country for wildfire management, science and research, says Struzik.

"I think the lesson to be learned from Alberta is that you've got to get ahead of the game," he tells The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

'Our forest is one of the biggest in the world — bigger than the Amazon, and the rainforests combined. And it is a forest that is essentially pyrotechnic — it's a bomb ready to go off.' - Ed Struzik

But Struzik says the Canadian government has been slow to react to the new intensity of wildfires, and believes massive fires like the ones engulfing B.C's are "inevitable" given the current political landscape.  

"Let's face it, since Paul Martin, Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper, we've had a bureaucracy that has been focused on deconstructing — cutting programs and balancing budgets."

loon lake bc wildfires

Shawn Cahill watches as a wildfire approaches his cabin on the other side of Loon Lake, B.C., on July 15, 2017. (Shawn Cahill)

 "The Canadian Forest Service used to be one of the gold standards for promoting fire science in North America — if not the world. They had 2,400 people working for them in the 1990s. They have less than 700 now. Their fire budget is almost non-existent."

But Struzik says the stakes are too high for Canada to continue avoiding significant action in addressing the threat of growing wildfires.

"We've got to start investing more in wildfire science to help firefighters understand how fires behave to help communities make themselves more resilient to fire."

"This is really the big challenge. It's a challenge for human health. It's a challenge for the economy. It's the challenge for people's livelihoods."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this post. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino.