Beyond the flames: Sparking strategy from last year’s wildfires
By Rosanne Lake
March 28, 2016 - To say last year was a busy wildfire season in Canada would be an understatement.
By Rosanne Lake
Wildfires ripped through forest, field and even communities, burning an unusually high number of hectares.
The conditions firefighters exhaustively worked through gave those on the ground, in operations and in governmental agency roles, experience that they hope to carry forward into the 2016 fire season.
Western Canadian forest landscapes started being ravaged by wildfire in late spring last year. In British Columbia and Alberta, the fire season started earlier than normal, and culminated in autumn far exceeding the averages for total wildfires and total area burned.
Ian Meier, director of the BC Wildfire Service, said 2015 was filled with obstacles to overcome, testing the mettle of fire organizations while proving the strength of those on the ground and in planning roles. He said last year’s intense fire season is helping to shape strategies moving forward.
“Last season was a challenging one, from many perspectives: the fire behaviour we contended with, the scale of fire activity across the province, the considerable demand for information on the fire situation from the public and our partners, and certainly the toll it took on our staff and the people of B.C.,” Meier said.
Record-breaking hot and dry conditions in June and July brought extreme fire danger ratings in B.C., which the BC Wildfire Service deemed as unusually elevated. B.C. and Alberta experienced busy early season fires, with significant incidents starting in early May. By mid-July, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. were all facing high fire loads and experiencing incredibly volatile and fast-growing fires.
“It all contributed to unusually high national statistics,” Meier said.
According to information from the BC Wildfire Service, the season saw more than 1,800 wildfires in the province; more than 304,000 hectares burned, and about $282 million in total estimated firefighting costs. These numbers significantly impacted people and communities throughout the province, as more than 1,100 homes were evacuated due to wildfire and about 50 structures were destroyed by fires.
Similarly in Alberta, 2015 far exceeded the five-year averages for total fire and total area burned by wildfire. According to information from the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, last season saw more than 1,800 fires consume more than 492,000 hectares.
Preparing for 2016
Behind the dramatic numbers lay learning opportunities. The challenges of last season ended up fine-tuning lessons to take forward into this fire season in terms of capabilities to meet extreme requirements. Meier said that due to the high level of wildfire activity across the country for parts of the summer, the BC Wildfire Service was forced to largely rely on the personnel and resources it had in the province, as additional resources were allocated for other areas of the country.
“This meant prioritizing our efforts, tackling the fires that posed the biggest threat to communities and infrastructure, and being as flexible as possible when moving our staff around the province to respond,” he said.
Looking ahead to the upcoming season, it may prove to be a detrimental repeat of the early start experienced last year.
Kerry Anderson, fire research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service in Alberta, said the conditions were right for an accelerated start to the fire season last year – and it might be that way again for 2016.
He said 2015 was marked by a strengthening of the El Niño Southern Oscillation which translated into warming in Western Canada and a reduction in precipitation, making those provinces drier than normal – and their forests more flammable – until mid-July.
“Large patterns like that have the potential to affect fire seasons,” he said.
Anderson said the ENSO is ramping up again. He said he hopes weather conditions intervene to knock it off, as all it takes is one big, healthy weather system to overcome the dry period and help to mitigate a large fire risk. Meier said it was exactly that situation last year, which led up to the accelerated start to the season in B.C.
“Speaking specifically to B.C., we saw sustained hot and dry conditions in parts of the province that are usually much more temperate (for instance, on the southern coast and Vancouver Island) that led to unusually large and aggressive fires in these areas,” he said. “Northern B.C. also saw many large fires on the landscape, while southern B.C. dealt with a significant number of interface fires that led to evacuations and destruction of homes and property.”
Fire services continue to keep a keen eye on conditions. Meier said the BC Wildfire Service closely monitors the weather situation year-round, in coordination with other government agencies, such as the River Forecast Centre and Environment Canada.
“We begin to generate monthly strategic outlooks in the late winter that help us plan and prepare for the season ahead,” he said. “While long-term indicators do aid us in having a broad idea of what kind of weather to expect over the summer months, the indicators that feed into the Fire Danger Rating are very much based on short-term weather patterns that are difficult to predict ahead of time.”
Another part of strategizing for this year involves awareness. The BC Wildfire Service states while lightning accounted for more than two thirds (or 1,234) of wildfires in 2015, many of the most destructive fires were caused by people, and therefore preventable. Meier said the category of person-caused wildfires covers a wide spectrum – everything from industrial activity, for example, sparks coming off machinery, to personal carelessness such as abandoned campfires.
“If there is one takeaway from last year that I hope people take into the summer of 2016, it would be awareness – awareness of how volatile our climate is in many parts of the province, awareness of how quickly the forests fuels can dry out, and awareness of how their actions can have dire consequences,” Meier said.
Mitigating the risk
Anderson said fire is a natural component of a healthy ecosystem in the boreal forest.
“The issue is when public health and safety comes into play. That’s when we have to be concerned,” he said.
Kelly Johnston, executive director of FireSmart Canada, said more communities are being faced with wildfire threats. He harbours an inherent understanding of wildfire, as Johnston is on the operational side of fighting fires throughout the summer months, in addition to heading up the FireSmart organization.
FireSmart essentially uses preventative measures to reduce wildfire threats to Canadians and their communities, while balancing the benefits of wildfire on the landscape. Built on partnerships between government, First Nations, industry and residents, the organization works to reduce the likelihood of large, uncontrollable wildfires in the country’s forests.
Johnston said North American fire organizations excel at fire suppression and are extremely effective at squashing wildfires under four hectares in size.
“It’s been that way for years – but we’re still seeing communities destroyed by fire because there is that small percentage of fires escaping on us,” he said.
He went on to say that the only way to change that is to give firefighters an edge – mitigation ahead of time so fires aren’t burning so aggressively. Managing the risk with landscape design, as well as altered forestry and harvesting practices, can all mean positive changes to fire behaviour potential, Johnston said. Moving forward, more communities and industry leaders are getting on board with FireSmart principles – which not only means more education and awareness, but also a greater reduction in fire threat.
He said humans have historically changed the forest dynamic and health, so that forests are physically different now than a century ago – which ultimately makes the forests more of a wildfire target. Couple that with more homes encroaching on natural spaces and Johnston said it’s a recipe for more dangerous fires.
Along with preparedness, Meier said technology has become a prime tool for ensuring rapid response – and will continue to be integrated directly into operations as part of the strategy in aggressive initial attack on wildfire.
“Once reported, we dispatch the closest and most appropriate crews and resources to the wildfire. In many cases, this involves the use of aircraft – both helicopters and fixed-wing planes – to get to the fire as soon as possible and begin stemming its growth,” he said, noting this buys time for crews to get to the fire and begin work to contain it on the ground.
“Our dispatching program tracks all of our air assets in real time, as well as our initial attack vehicles, in addition to information coming from phone reports, weather stations, and the Canadian Lightning Detection Network. This level of integration lends itself to our initial attack success,” he said.
Reflection on such a demanding fire season often doesn’t happen until all the speedbumps have been traversed. Looking back now, Meier said the season showed the potential strength of the system in place, while also giving clear direction to surmounting a similar situation moving forward.
“Despite the challenges we faced, we were very successful in meeting the needs of such a busy season,” he said. “These lessons will shape our strategy going forward, both to 2016 and beyond.”