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Understanding the Surge in Wildfires Across Canada and the United States

Updated: Sep 6, 2023


burned forest due to wildfire


Multifaceted Contributors to Surging Wildfires


In recent years, the specter of wildfires has loomed larger than ever across Canada and the United States. From the boreal forests of Canada to the arid landscapes of California, devastating wildfires have become a regular headline, leaving destruction in their wake. The causes behind this surge in wildfires are multifaceted, rooted in a complex interplay of environmental, climatic, and human factors. In this post, we delve into the key contributors to the increase in wildfires across North America.


Climate Change and Extended Fire Seasons


Climate change is arguably the most significant factor fueling the increase in wildfires. Rising temperatures, prolonged droughts, and altered precipitation patterns create the perfect storm for fire ignition and spread. The changing climate has led to longer fire seasons, allowing fires to thrive in areas that were historically less prone to them. Warmer temperatures dry out vegetation, transforming vast landscapes into tinderboxes waiting for a spark.


Here in Canada:

The boreal forest, covering about 30% of Canada's land area, is highly susceptible to climate change-driven wildfires. In recent years, northern regions like the Northwest Territories have experienced longer fire seasons and more frequent, larger fires due to warmer temperatures and drier conditions. The 2019 wildfires in Alberta and the Northwest Territories burned over 1.4 million hectares of land, largely driven by a combination of dry conditions and lightning strikes.


landscape burnt by wildfire

Forest Management Practices

Decades of fire suppression have led to an accumulation of dense undergrowth and dead vegetation in many forests. This excess fuel provides ample material for fires to burn hotter and faster when ignited. Additionally, some past forest management strategies, such as allowing logging companies to remove larger, fire-resistant trees, have left behind more flammable species, further exacerbating fire risks.


Here in Canada:

In parts of British Columbia, mismanaged logging practices have left behind dense young tree stands that are highly susceptible to wildfires. The mountain pine beetle infestation has also impacted large areas of pine forests, leaving behind vast expanses of dead trees. These areas become fuel for wildfires, increasing the risk of intense and fast-spreading fires.


raging wildfire with helicopter water bomber

Urban Wild-land Interface


The expanding urban-wildland interface, where human development encroaches upon natural landscapes, has led to higher wildfire risks. Homes and communities situated in these areas are more susceptible to wildfires, both due to their proximity to fire-prone environments and the presence of human activities that can inadvertently start fires.

Here in Canada:

The town of Fort McMurray in Alberta faced a catastrophic wildfire event in 2016. The wildfire, known as the "Fort McMurray Fire," forced the evacuation of nearly 90,000 people and destroyed over 2,400 structures. The close proximity of residential areas to the surrounding boreal forest contributed to the rapid spread of the fire and the challenges of evacuation.


housing development in urban interface areas


Human Activities


Human activities, both intentional and unintentional, play a significant role in igniting wildfires. Campfires left unattended, discarded cigarette butts, downed power lines, and even equipment sparks can all trigger fires. Arson is another unfortunate human-caused ignition source. Additionally, the increase in outdoor recreation and tourism can inadvertently lead to more fire starts.

Here in Canada:

According to the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System (CWFIS), approximately 59% of wildfires in Canada over the past decade have been human-caused. Human-caused wildfires can be especially costly due to their proximity to urban interface areas. The 2016 Fort McMurray Fire, which was sparked by human activity, resulted in approximately $9 billion in insured damages.


campfires contribute to human-cased wildfire

Invasive Species and Pest Infestations


Invasive species and pest infestations, such as bark beetles, weaken trees and turn them into kindling. These compromised trees are more susceptible to ignition, making the spread of wildfires more rapid and intense. The loss of healthy trees disrupts natural firebreaks, allowing fires to progress unchecked.

Here in Canada:

The mountain pine beetle epidemic in British Columbia has impacted millions of hectares of pine forests, leaving behind vast swaths of dead trees. These beetle-killed forests are highly susceptible to wildfires, as the dead trees provide abundant fuel. The 2003 wildfires in British Columbia, known as the "Firestorm," spread rapidly through beetle-killed forests, contributing to the severity of the event.


forest affected by mountain pine beetle

Limited Resources and Fire Suppression Challenges


The sheer scale of wildfire outbreaks has stretched firefighting resources to their limits. Overextended fire departments and exhausted budgets can hinder effective fire suppression efforts, allowing fires to gain ground more easily. This challenge is exacerbated by the increasing frequency of simultaneous fires across different regions.

Here in Canada:

The 2017 wildfire season in British Columbia was one of the most severe on record. Multiple wildfires ignited across the province, stretching firefighting resources thin. Evacuations were widespread, and the cost of firefighting efforts exceeded the provincial budget. The complexity and scale of the fires highlighted the need for well-funded and coordinated firefighting efforts.


Unfortunately, the problem continues to worsen. By mid July of this year, 2023 had already become BC's most destructive fire season on record, burning over 14,000 square kilometres.



wildfire fighters

Fuel Load and Structure – *Added thanks to reader feedback*


The way forests are managed and harvested can affect the accumulation of dead and live vegetation, often referred to as "fuel load." Clear-cutting, for example, can remove much of the live vegetation and leave behind a landscape with more dead material, potentially increasing the fuel load and making it more susceptible to wildfires.


Logging and development can also cause forest fragmentation, creating "edge effects" which may increase the vulnerability of forests to wildfires. Edges between different land uses can be drier and more prone to ignition.

Here in Canada:

So much harvesting has been conducted without adequate incentive to recover pulp logs and/or lower value fibre. In the Mackenzie TSA, for example, there has always been a weak market for these components of harvested stands, particularly as you move further away from the facilities that process or consume them. Lower utilization over large portions of the landscape contribute significantly to the fuel loading.

Over a decade ago, a substantial portion of the industry shifted away from roadside processing and whole log skidding to stumpside processing and forwarding of processed logs. This meant that all the debris resulting from log extraction was now left spread out over harvest openings instead of being piled at roadside and (typically) burned. This is a major shift in terms of fuel accumulation on the “managed” portion of the landscape.


Addressing a Growing Crisis


The surge in wildfires across Canada and the United States is a complex issue with a multitude of contributing factors. Climate change, mismanaged forest ecosystems, human activities, and the interaction between these elements have combined to create a perfect storm of wildfire risks.


Addressing this crisis requires a multi-pronged approach that includes adopting proactive forest management strategies, raising awareness about fire prevention, investing in firefighting resources, and accelerating efforts to mitigate climate change. As we grapple with this growing challenge, it becomes evident that collaborative efforts, research, and comprehensive policy changes are vital for minimizing the devastating impact of wildfires on communities, ecosystems, and economies.


 

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Frontera Forest Solutions is a forestry consultancy located in North Vancouver, British Columbia. With clients all around Western Canada, Frontera specializes in helping communities develop wildfire resiliency though innovative forest management an urban forestry, grant writing and training and curriculum development.


To explore how we can work with your community, reach out here.


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