Strengthening Canada’s Climate-Driven Wildfire Defence

The 2023 Canadian wildfire season has elucidated the multifaceted challenges posed by climate change-related natural disasters. In this Expert Series, panelists explore wildfire mitigation and resilience strategies. They highlighted the necessity of a proactive, coordinated approach to wildfires in Canada through strategies such as the establishment of a national firefighting force, empowerment of indigenous leaders, and more effective landscape management. Immediate actions backed by governmental support, intergovernmental and cross-sector collaboration, and a broader societal commitment are essential to protect Canadians against the impact of increasingly severe wildfires.

The following summary is an overview of the key perspectives and recommendations put forth in interviews the CDA Institute conducted with the following experts:

LGen (Ret’d) Andrew Leslie, former Commander of the Canadian Army

Peter Kasurak, Fellow, CIDP, former Senior Principal for National Security, Public Safety, and Justice, Office of the Auditor General

Dr. Amy Cardinal-Christianson, Fire Research Scientist, Canadian Forest Service, Natural Resources Canada

Dr. Mike Flannigan, BC Innovation Research Chair in Predictive Services, Emergency Management and Fire Science, and Director of the Canadian Partnership for Wildland Fire Science, University of Alberta

Robert W. Gray, AFE certified wildland fire ecologist and President of R.W. Gray Consulting Ltd.

Dr. Jill Harvey, Canada Research Chair in Fire Ecology and Assistant Professor at Thompson Rivers University

Impact of Disaster Response on the CAF, Federal-Provincial Cooperation, and Prioritizing a Proactive Response

LGen (Ret’d) Andrew Leslie, former Commander of the Canadian Army, suggested that the current government hasn’t made any significant contributions to mitigating the impact of climate change on Canadian security. According to Leslie, the government has not invested resources or strategic thinking into creating necessary specialized emergency response organizations at the national level. This has left provinces struggling to manage increasingly severe climate-related disasters.

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has increasingly been employed as a first resort for disaster response. Leslie questioned the sustainability of this, given the CAF’s resources constraints, personnel shortages, global conflicts such as the war in Ukraine, and amid tension in the South China Sea. He emphasized the need for a response organization, either adjacent to or as part of the CAF.

Provinces and territories have effective emergency response cells with experienced personnel. While some require reinforcement, the existing machinery of government is adept at seeking assistance at the provincial level. However, the establishment of an organization equipped with resources and capabilities to assist provinces in disaster response, under federal guidance is necessary.

The Role of the CAF in Disaster and Emergency Response

Peter Kasurak, who led the defence and national security sections of the Office of the Auditor General of Canada, explained that previous disaster response initiatives have not significantly strained the CAF. Over the past decade, there have been approximately 30 disaster relief efforts, which were relatively small, requiring fewer than 2000 troops in many cases. Incidents like the Red River floods and the 1998 ice storm were exceptions, demanding larger personnel.

Kasurak emphasized that humanitarian disaster relief is a priority for the CAF, as outlined in SSE. However, defining the central entity for disaster management remains uncertain. The CAF cannot fully withdraw due to high labor demand. Furthermore, aviation has played a significant role in addressing natural disasters and the absence of a civilian air force for disaster relief means that the RCAF’s involvement is crucial.

The federal government must shift focus from post-disaster recovery to mitigation. Prioritizing resilience measures and allocating federal funding to mitigation can significantly reduce the need for disaster relief. However, challenges in coordination and jurisdictional issues pose significant challenges. Furthermore, focusing on post-disaster funding can create moral hazards, discouraging necessary preventive measures. Ultimately, in the absence of a civilian-led disaster or emergency response unit, the CAF must prioritize disaster response for the foreseeable future.

Indigenous Fire Stewardship and Cultural Burns

Dr. Amy Cardinal-Christianson, Research Scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, highlighted the significance of indigenous land stewardship and the need for collaboration with indigenous leaders in wildfire management practices. She discussed the cultural practice of controlled burns—the planned and controlled use of fire on the landscape—by various indigenous nations across Canada. Historically, cultural burns have had a beneficial impact on the environment as they can achieve various land management objectives, such as promoting the growth of desirable plants, etc.

According to Dr. Cardinal-Christianson, the arrival of European settlers brought a shift in perspectives on fire. Fire exclusion policies evolved into fire suppression. This historical trajectory impacted indigenous fire knowledge and practices, with some nations losing their traditional understanding. Fire exclusion campaigns and suppression efforts have adversely affected landscapes, diminishing their adaptability to fire. Indigenous communities once cultivated diverse forests for different purposes, creating mosaic landscapes, but these have been lost due to current forest management practices, resulting in monoculture forests.

Employing controlled burns during periods of low risk reduces available fuel during wildfire season. Incorporating traditional indigenous fire stewardship into current wildfire management practices could help address the increasing severity of wildfires. Nonetheless, there remain concerns regarding the historical appropriation of indigenous knowledge by colonial institutions, potentially eroding indigenous autonomy. According to Cardinal Christianson, a necessary shift involves empowering indigenous communities to lead fire management decisions, encompassing cultural burns.

Altering Wildfire Behavior and a Whole-of-Society Approach

Robert W. Gray, AFE-certified wildland fire ecologist and President of R.W. Gray Consulting Ltd., advocates for a whole-of-society approach to address the challenges posed by increasing wildfire severity and frequency. He emphasized the need for a concerted effort across various sectors, much like the collective mobilization of industry, academia, and the public sector during WWII.

Gray discusses the potential benefits of altering wildfire behavior through the creation of natural barriers and corridors that impede fire progression. By mimicking the natural and vegetative fences that historically divided landscapes, such as lakes, rivers, rocks, and riparian zones, it is possible to disrupt fuel patterns that facilitate large and severe wildfires. The concept revolves around introducing more diversity and heterogeneity into the landscape.

While the allocation of government resources predominantly goes to disaster response and recovery, it is imperative to shift focus towards mitigation efforts. He calls for a recalibration of priorities and funding distribution, citing the significant disparity between resources dedicated to reactive measures and those aimed at long-term prevention.

While Gray acknowledges the role of climate change in exacerbating wildfires, he contends that the severity of their impact can be mitigated through targeted fuel reduction strategies. Gray also stressed that addressing personnel shortages in industries like firefighting is essential, particularly in light of increasing wildfires.

The role of human-caused climate change in the severity and frequency of wildfires

Dr. Mike Flannigan, BC Innovation Research Chair in Predictive Services, Emergency Management and Fire Science, and Director of the Canadian Partnership for Wildland Fire Science, University of Alberta, explained that 3% of fires are responsible for a staggering 97% of total area burned, mostly occurring on days with high fire risk conditions known as spread days.

Dr. Flannigan emphasized increasing global temperatures as a major catalyst for extended and increasingly intense fire seasons. As temperatures rise, the atmosphere’s ability to dry out fuels on the forest floor escalates exponentially, resulting in drier fuels, making it easier for fires to start and spread, culminating in higher-intensity fires. Human-caused climate change is a significant factor contributing to the doubling of burned areas in Canada since the 1970s. While the number of human-caused wildfires has decreased since the 1970s, the number attributed to lightning has increased considerably.

Dr. Flannigan advocated for more proactive and collective efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While human-caused fires are preventable through bans and forest closures, many of our strategies are often reactive. Dr. Flannigan advocates for a national firefighting force, suggesting a model similar to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). However, there needs to be strong collaboration with provinces to implement such a strategy.

Employing Proactive Forest Management Practices to Address Wildfire Severity

Dr. Jill Harvey, Canada Research Chair in Fire Ecology and Assistant Professor at Thompson Rivers University discussed the impact of forest management practices on escalating wildfires, focusing on strategies to minimize their consequences. In British Columbia, historical forest management for timber and wood resources has led to the growth of vast, even-aged forests. This, combined with a century of fire suppression, has resulted in extensive layers of continuous fuel covering the landscape. Consequently, when ignited and fueled by weather conditions, these areas become vulnerable to wildfires.

Dr. Harvey proposed permitting controlled burns during safe conditions as a means to mitigate wildfire severity. She emphasizes the necessity of introducing diversity into landscapes, through coordinated forest management strategies. While significant resources are typically allocated to reactive fire suppression efforts, Dr. Harvey advocates for investing in longer-term strategies that allow coexistence with wildfires. This involves forest thinning, fuel reduction, and the regular use of prescribed and cultural fires.

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