Climate change and wildfires the new norm

As of Aug. 25, there have been 415 wildfires in Saskatchewan, matching the 10-year average. The highest number of fires in the province was recorded in 2015 with a total of 720. 

It has been a fire season like no other. However, according to author John Vaillant, who wrote Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast and has been watching and studying fires ever since 2016 when wildfires ripped through the city of Fort McMurray, this is most likely what we should expect going forward.

As of Aug. 25, there have been 415 wildfires in Saskatchewan, matching the 10-year average. The highest number of fires in the province was recorded in 2015 with a total of 720. 

In Vaillant’s observations and research into the behaviour of wildfires since the turn of the century, fires like what we have seen this year in northern Saskatchewan, Alberta, Quebec, the maritime provinces, the Northwest Territories, and British Columbia represent a new normal of fires which burn longer and with greater intensity than at any other time this planet has ever known.

It is not that the chemistry and physics of wildfires have changed, but climate change has created conditions that give fire exponentially more opportunity to burn. The accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere facilitates heat retention and the evaporation of moisture from the landscape that leaves a ready fuel to propel fire more quickly and easily through forests and grasslands. The combination of drought, low humidity, and high temperatures are in Vaillant’s words, “like gasoline to fire”. 

The Fort McMurray Fire grew from four acres to 150 in two hours and while most wildfires settle down overnight, as the air cools and the dew falls, by noon the following day this fire had impacted nearly 2,000 acres.

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The fire, which melted vehicles where they were left and turned entire neighbourhoods into infernos, was not a freak event says Valliant, but rather a bellwether, and the past six years have borne this out. There is no disputing that since 2016, in all areas of the globe, countries have experienced many of the worst fires, and fire seasons, in human history.

The release of Vaillant’s book this year as Canada experiences the worst fire season on record seems almost prophetic. Apocalyptic images of mountainsides engulfed in flames, smoke obscuring the sun half a continent away, and people evacuating through walls of flames on either side of the road are more than convincing enough of the reality of a new kind of fire that has introduced itself into our world.

Andrew Weaver, a professor at the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria, and his colleague warned 20 years ago that there was already a detectable human influence on the observed increasing area burned from Canadian wildfires.

The wildfires of 2023 have already burned an area equivalent to the size of Greece.

While Canadians will take solace as summer turns into fall and then winter and the immediacy of our 2023 wildfire situation wanes, unfortunately, it will be Australia’s turn next to experience the burning wrath of nature in global warming and the 2023 El Niño.

Wildfires can start in several ways.

Some are the result of natural weather occurrences like lightning strikes, while others are caused by human actions.

According to Steve Roberts, the vice president of operations for the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, people rather than lightning strikes, have sparked most of Saskatchewan’s wildfires this year.

Saskatchewan’s wildfire season typically runs from April to October, and 2023 saw that season start with an unusual intensity. From grass fires to forest fires, Saskatchewan’s firefighters have battled the beast on all fronts, and with El Niño’s arrival experts are already voicing warnings about next year.

Most firefighters in Canada are volunteers who give their time to protect the residents and infrastructure of the communities they live in.

Volunteer firefighters take time off work to respond to calls at a moment’s notice and up until now, for the most part, that has worked well.

The struggle comes in a fire season like this one, where firefighters are gone to a fire for days at a time, in some cases weeks or even longer.

There is an urgent need for measures that will help in the recruiting of firefighters as the current volunteers age out and are not being replaced by younger volunteers, especially with wildfire seasons worsening and municipal firefighters being called upon to cope.

Up until 2013, the Joint Emergency Preparedness Plan allowed fire departments to apply for specialty training and equipment to learn to work with situations they wouldn’t regularly encounter such as wildfire, which is not something municipal firefighters contend with on a regular basis. After the demise of that program, none other has replaced it. 

The SPSA does offer a two-day awareness course that is designed for firefighters and individuals who directly and indirectly encounter and fight wildland fires in Saskatchewan.

Called Wildland Fire Suppression Awareness, the course aims to provide information that will assist firefighters in identifying safe and informed strategies when fighting wildland fires, but without hands-on experience, how valuable is information, especially when dealing with the volatility of the fires like those witnessed just this year? This is a new and different beast than in the past.

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Historically, the firefighting program at Melville was a flagship course for the former Parkland College until it was placed on hold in 2021, due in part to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Renamed the Saskatchewan Emergency Response Institute, the former Parkland College’s rejuvenated provincial firefighting training site in Melville can accommodate 18 to 24 students per intake.

With the resumption of the program, 14 students at the new Suncrest College have already begun their National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) training.

Current students will have access to the Emergency Medical Responder course immediately following the completion of their program.

Industrial fire training will also be expanded and will prepare students for anything from city fires to basic wildland fires.

A one-time investment of $1.33 million from the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency for the purchase of training equipment and up to $210,000 in Capital Grant funding in the 2023-24 fiscal year from the Ministry of Advanced Education for fixed, on-location capital assets accounted for the remainder of March 2023 announced $1.8 million investment.

Suncrest College was established on July 1, 2023, through the merging of Cumberland College and Parkland College. 

Additionally, Saskatchewan First Nations Emergency Management provides forest firefighter training services to all First Nations communities in Saskatchewan.

“Due to the remote areas needed to be accessed, proper training and preparation for combating forest fires are essential to our success.”

Firefighters are taken through courses designed to reflect real-world engagements, learning how to operate the machinery and tools used, how to properly utilize their personal protective equipment, and how fires behave in a forest area.

This training goes a long way in ensuring the safety of the emergency responders and their communities.

While governments play catch-up and deal with immediate, rather than transformational proactive approaches to wildfire management, Canada’s firefighters will face increasingly fierce fire seasons.

Hopefully, the loss of firefighters’ lives this year will not be in vain and our government will heed calls for a nationally-funded, fully trained wildfire fighting unit as other nations have. 

This story was originally published in The Wakaw Reporter. It is republished under a Creative Commons license as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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