Complex wildfires have no simple solution

Politicization of the issue from both sides doesn’t help the problem. Pictured is the ongoing wildfire in Kelowna, BC. Photo credit: AFP/Darren Hull via Getty Images


Once again, the politicization of an issue deters the achievement of workable solutions. The latest example is Canada’s profusion of wildfires this summer in many parts of Canada. Wildfires have taken place for centuries around the world, but in recent years have become more of a significant environmental concern globally. 

Although climate change has played a role in altering weather patterns and exacerbating fire conditions in many regions, wildfires and their severity are also a complex mix of other factors. Neither the climate zealots who claim wildfires are largely a result of climate change nor those who attribute the problem mainly to arson are helping resolve this serious issue, although both positions have elements of truth. 

There are many natural factors that contribute to the incidence of wildfires and their intensity. Canada’s boreal forests are prone to fires which are necessary to clean out dead vegetation and allow for new growth. This cycle of fire and regeneration is essential to sustain these forests and the variety of plant and animal life they support. Lightning strikes are also a major cause of wildfires, and their intensity and frequency have little if anything to do with climate change. 

The human-related factors are also varied, ranging from carelessness with campfires and lit cigarettes to the extreme of arson. Incidents of arson seem to be getting more frequent in recent years, and are often committed by climate extremists who want to create a reason to blame climate change for disaster. Considering that these groups have no qualms about throwing red paint on valuable artworks, blocking roads and bridges, destroying pipelines and other extreme acts that create mayhem, it is not hard to believe arson is also in their toolkit. 

Urbanization into areas that were previously uninhabited is also a causal factor as various type of human activity contribute to wildfires. Building on land that has known risks such as wildfires and flooding is bound to create problems. Although some climate extremists say the number of extreme weather events are increasing because of climate change, what is often the case is that the amount of financial damage caused by fires and floods is higher because we are building more expensive homes and businesses on vulnerable land. 

Governments must also shoulder some of the blame, as they are supposed to implement forestry management practices that prevent or lessen the impact of wildfires, fund fire-fighting resources and put in place mitigating policies that reduce the damage done. During the recent surge in BC wildfires, the provincial government was criticized for waiting far too long before starting to fight the fires, at which point they were out of control. It’s been known for some time that better fire management practices were needed, including such things as creating fuel breaks (gaps in vegetation that can slow down or stop a wildfire), increasing the diversity, density and age of trees and more use of controlled burns. 

Urban planning must also become more comprehensive, so that urban expansion can take place in ways that minimize fire risks such as setting zoning regulations that limit building in high-risk areas. Better public awareness of fire safety measures and responsible camping practices would also be helpful. Any cases of arson must be prosecuted harshly, as they have been growing in many countries including Canada. In several provinces, resources dedicated to fire management, including the number of firefighters experienced in fighting wildfires, have been reduced in recent years as other priorities were given more attention by governments, with predictable results. 

Wildfires have always occurred throughout history, and are a natural phenomenon which is necessary for healthy forests and wildlife, but must be taken more seriously by Canadian governments than has been the case. The fact that 2023 has been an especially bad year will hopefully be a wake-up call to governments and Canadians generally that better preparation and resources to deal with the fires once they are started are badly needed. And like so many other issues, politicizing wildfires as so many politicians and interest groups are currently doing is more likely to delay effective action than help deal with the problem. 

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