Learning to live with forest fires

Fires are a fact of life in most of Canada’s forests and are needed to ensure forest health and renewal. In some regions fires occur naturally about once a century. In other regions they occur more frequently. Some forest plants and animals are able to survive a fire and even thrive afterwards because they have adapted to fire over thousands of years.

Unfortunately, people aren’t as well adapted to fire. For those who live and work in forest areas, forest fires can be catastrophic.

Just ask anyone from Fort McMurray or another community who has been affected by forest fire. Homes, businesses, infrastructure and entire communities can be destroyed, lives can be lost or forever altered, and the economic impacts can be felt long after the fire is out. (See Fort McMurray fire at a glance infographic.)

More forest fires, more people living in the forest: an increasing risk to be managed

Since 1990, on average about 7,500 fires burn 2.4 million hectares of forest in Canada each year. But the frequency and size of fires are expected to rise with climate change, as unseasonable and extreme weather becomes more common and the frequency of lightning-caused fires increases.

Rural communities, many of them Indigenous, located in remote areas where forests burn frequently are especially affected, and thousands of people are evacuated each year as a result of forest fires.

At the same time, with the growth of residential, recreational and industrial development in forested areas, there are more people in or near forests than ever before. This has increased not only the number of people affected by forest fires but also the number of forest fires started by people. This growing risk needs to be managed.

A photo of a burned out neighbourhood in Fort McMurray showing rubble from houses and burnt cars in the foreground with trees in the background.

Balancing the benefits and costs of fire

The cost of fire management across Canada has risen steadily since 1970, with the sharpest increases occurring since the mid-1990s. From an average annual cost of $290 million in the early 1970s, spending on fire management reached more than $900 million in 2013, and it has topped $1 billion in more recent years. With the number of fires and the area burned each year projected to increase due to climate change, these costs are expected to continue to rise.

Until the 1970s, the goal of fire management was suppression – to put out all forest fires. But as understanding of the ecological benefits of forest fires has grown (see Why Canada’s forests need fire), it has become clear that suppressing all fires is neither ecologically wise nor physically possible.

Fire management now includes a range of options, from putting fires out to letting them burn themselves out. Fire managers aim to balance fire’s ecological benefits with the need to protect people’s safety (including firefighters’) and that of property, timber and other forest resources and values. Residential areas, recreational sites, valuable commercial forests and, in some cases, rare habitat and culturally significant areas or features are high priorities for fire suppression. In wilderness parks and remote forests of limited economic value where fires pose no threat to communities or infrastructure, fires are left to burn, although with careful monitoring to ensure safety.

Being FireSmart helps communities adapt to forest fires

The risks of living in the wildland-urban interface can be reduced if everyone does their part.

The wildland-urban interface is the area where homes are built near or within forests prone to fire.

Public awareness programs such as FireSmart Canada provide advice to community members and leaders, firefighters and companies that operate in forest areas on how to protect homes, businesses, workers, buildings and infrastructure. For example, homeowners can keep trees thinned and branches trimmed around homes and use fire-resistant materials for fences, decks and roofing. Communities can reduce fuels surrounding buildings by thinning forests, creating fire guards and planting species that have moist leaves and low amounts of sap or resin.

FireSmart also suggests measures that industry can take to reduce both risk and damage from fires, such as choosing lower-risk locations for company facilities and using safe practices in operations.

A photo of a young girl with an armful of logs and forest in the background.
Clearing branches and dead wood near homes and buildings is one way communities can be FireSmart.

Provincial, territorial and federal governments are collaborating to advance the 2016 Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy through a range of actions. These include improving cross-jurisdictional preparedness and response capability, increasing investments in fire research innovation and enhancing commitments to resilient communities.

To date, 848 individuals have received FireSmart training, and 37 communities – including 18 Indigenous communities – are recognized under the FireSmart Canada Community Recognition Program. By taking preventive measures like these and being prepared long before fires start, people and communities in forested areas are learning to live with fire and adapt to it – just as the plants and wildlife in the forests where they live and work have done.

Sources

FireSmart Canada.

Natural Resources Canada–Canadian Forest Service. 2016. Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy: A 10-year review and renewed call to action. Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, Ottawa, ON.

Natural Resources Canada–Canadian Forest Service. Fire management.

Natural Resources Canada–Canadian Forest Service. Wildland fire evacuations. (accessed May 3, 2017).

Partners in Protection Association, Local FireSmart Representative Workshops, FireSmart Canada Community Recognition Program: Recognized Communities and Community Protection Achievement Awards from 2012 to June 2017.

Romps, D.M., Seeley, J.T., et al. 2014. Projected increase in lightning strikes in the United States due to global warming. Science 346(6211), 851–854.

Stocks, B.J., and Martell, D.L. 2016. Forest fire management expenditures in Canada: 1970–2013. Forestry Chronicle 92(3), 298–306.

Suddaby, Deanne, Partners in Protection Association [personal communication, June 12, 2017.]

Photo credit
  • Post-fire Fort McMurray neighbourhood and environs courtesy of Paul Colangelo.
  • Citizens clearing fuel sources courtesy of FireSmart Canada.