Sometimes it takes a disaster like Fort McMurray to make us prepare for the next one: Don Pittis

Experts complain that we just don't listen when they warn about the potential impact of natural disasters. As Don Pittis writes, perhaps a disaster like Fort McMurray is needed to make us change our ways.

Disaster expert says massive fire may save us from future risks

Experts advise residential areas within the boreal forest should be encirled by huge firebreaks and trees near homes and buildings cut down. (Submitted by Jenelle Ropson)

When Jim Faught went looking for a group of missing teenagers near the isolated community of Nakina, Ont., about 150 kilometres north of Lake Superior, he made a grisly discovery.

In a horrible human disaster, the seven charred bodies Faught found had only hours ago been vigorous 16- and 17-year-olds working in Ontario's junior ranger program and their 25-year-old junior ranger leader.

Experts say all too often it takes disasters as costly as the Fort McMurray fire to make us change our ways. The tragedy in Nakina is a horrible example of that process.

Like almost all so-called natural disasters, from floods to bear attacks, nature only causes problems because humans fail to recognize and prepare for its power. In the Nakina case, while the deadly force of nature was a forest fire, it had been lit by humans.

For Faught, who was working as an ignition boss on the 1979 fire, the details are etched into his memory. The young people had been helping with a prescribed burn, a process where foresters use fire to prepare a patch of land for replanting.
A view of Fort McMurray International Airport shows the fire engulfing a nearby outbuilding on Wednesday night. Deaths from forest fires are rare in Canada.

"As they came to the top of the hill they noticed they were encircled by fire because somebody had lit the other side of the block which they understood was not going to happen," says Faught, a professional forester who is now a principal at the consulting agency LURA.

While the seven were unfamiliar with fires, they were accompanied by an experienced firefighter who got the young people to clear brush away from a patch of open ground. His idea was to make the leading edge of the fire less hot in that patch once the fire reached them, allowing them to run through like a lion jumping through a flaming hoop.

"He asked them to follow him through the flames," says Faught. "He went through and they didn't follow him."

The firefighter suffered burns but lived. The seven took shelter in an unburned patch of forest and did not. The coroner determined they had died of smoke inhalation.

Swift action

Following the Nakina tragedy, Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources took swift action. It immediately banned inexperienced junior rangers from working on forest fires. Following an exhaustive inquiry, it introduced strict rules governing prescribed burns that were shared across the country.

When they are costly enough — either in human life or in dollars and cents — governments are forced by public opinion to try to prevent similar disasters from happening again.

Until last week, Quebec's 1998 ice storm was Canada's most expensive natural disaster, with insurance claims alone worth $1.9 billion in inflation-adjusted terms. In the aftermath, Hydro Quebec spent millions trying to make its system ice-storm resistant, including increasing the physical strength of towers and poles.

Until this week, the Quebec ice storm in January 1998 was considered Canada's most costly natural disaster. Hydro Quebec has spent millions upgrading the system to cope with future disasters, but damage can never be completely prevented. (Robert Galbraith/Canadian Press)

Following Canada's next most expensive disaster, Alberta's 2013 floods that cost insurers $1.8 billion, governments have moved to shore up river banks and improve warning systems.

It's harder to convince people to prepare for a disaster that hasn't happened. For instance, critics of Vancouver's earthquake preparedness say sometimes even officials don't take planning for "the big one" seriously.

Brian Stocks, who investigated the Nakina tragedy and the massive fire in Slave Lake, Alta., in 2011, says until a big disaster strikes, many people have trouble listening to expert advice.

'Attention span of a ferret'

"We're in a society nowadays where people have the attention span of a ferret on a double espresso," says Stocks, who used to be a senior forest fire research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service.

Before retiring from that job, Stocks was one of the first to warn of the impending effects of climate change on fires in the boreal forest that stretches across the continent from Alaska to the Atlantic.

Long before the blaze in Fort McMurray, and the similar one in Slave Lake, Stocks and his colleagues warned that as human activity reached deeper into the northern forest, disasters were going to become more, not less, likely to happen.
Flooding in Corner Brook, N.L. From coast to coast, insurance experts worry climate change is making natural disasters more costly. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Perversely, efficient fire suppression creates a buildup of dead wood and other fuels making forests more fire-prone.

"It's not economically possible or ecologically feasible to try to eliminate fire from the forest," says Stocks. "You build a huge oil complex in the middle of a forest ecosystem that is designed to burn — forests regenerate themselves through fire."

Stocks says the problem will become even worse if climate change increases the frequency and intensity of fires.

There are ways of helping industrial installations and communities to prepare for fires, but Stocks worries that perhaps because fires in any one community are historically rare, those preparations are often ignored.

Zero risk?

Previous reports have recommended a two-kilometre firebreak around communities and the removal of trees and forest debris in residential areas. Stocks says people complain that's ugly. There are also ways to make homes and public buildings more fire-resistant, but as with earthquake-proofing, it's more expensive. 

Only a post-fire investigation will determine whether the long list of recommended fire prevention techniques would have saved the gutted homes and buildings of Fort McMurray.

There is no such thing as zero risk. But following the Nakina tragedy, Canadian forest fire fighter deaths have become rare and there has never been another person killed in a prescribed burn. Perhaps the losses in Fort McMurray — because they are so devastating — will have a similar effect.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

​More analysis by Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.