Ideas·Ideas Afternoon

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

They're bigger, faster and hotter than before, torching more of our world: wildfires, like those now ravaging British Columbia, the one that ripped through Fort McMurray in 2016, or through Slave Lake, Alta. 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.
With wildfires having burned more than 380,000 hectares in B.C. this year, 2018 is already the province's fourth worst fire season on record. (Shawn Cahill)
Listen to the full episode54:00

They're bigger, faster and hotter than before, torching more of our world: wildfires, like those now ravaging British Columbia, the one that ripped through Fort McMurray in 2016, or through Slave Lake, Alta., 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. 

Adrienne Lamb explores the factors altering how we have to live with wildfire. 1:54

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.

On August 17, 2018, the British Columbia government declared a province-wide state of emergency with nearly 600 wildfires tearing through B.C. Already, it is the province's fourth worst fire season on record. Over 3,000 people have been affected by evacuation orders.

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

Fort McMurray's wildfire of 2016 had thousands fleeing for their lives. But it was not the first time that had happened. Seven years ago, the town of Slave Lake, Alta., 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 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 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
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Fire chief Jamie Coutts explains the dangers created by putting houses too close to forest 0:57


Thousands of people lost their homes, their cars — basically, everything they owned. There was more loss in Fort McMurray with 2,579 homes 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, with $3.7 billion in damages. 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 two million hectares is a doubling of the 1970s average area burned. We see a doubling then. So there's no question there's more fire in the landscape compared to the 1970s.- 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, Alta. 

  • 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, Alta.

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

  • Tyler Warman, Mayor of Slave Lake, Alta.

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

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

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

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


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, B.C., in 2013. Researchers from the B.C. 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.

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