Canada’s ability to prevent fires has been reduced for decades by budget cuts, the loss of some of the country’s Forest Service personnel and onerous fire prevention regulations, which have turned some of its forests into a tinderbox.
As residents braced for what may be the worst fire season on record, and which is far from over, the air slowly cleared over the northeastern United States Friday, but hundreds of wildfires continued to burn throughout Canada.
Thanks to some rain and cloud cover near the fire areas, with scattered rain expected in parts of southern Ontario on Sunday, Steven Flisfeder, warning preparedness meteorologist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, predicted that the weekend could bring better air quality to Toronto, the country’s largest city.
« This will help flush out the contaminants a little bit from the air, » he said.
More than 1,100 firefighters from around the world have been dispatched across Canada to help fight the country’s raging fire season, officials said, including groups from France, Chile, Costa Rica, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Emergency bushfire response management is handled by each of Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories, but hundreds of wildfires across the country have depleted local resources and renewed demands for a national fire service.
At a time when many Canadians question whether the country has enough firefighting resources, several experts say the government should focus on doing everything it can to prevent wildfires, a goal it has strayed from since budget cuts over the years. ’90 that have hampered the nation’s Forest Service.
« We need to do more to get ahead of the problem, » said Mike Flannigan, who studies wildfires at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia, a community in the heart of that province’s wildfire country. « And progress on that has been slow, mainly because we’re stuck in this paradigm that fire suppression is the solution. »
People studying Canada’s response say it has been undermined by a variety of forces, including cuts to local and national forest budgets, cumbersome fire safety measures, and a steep reduction in the number of Forest Service employees. .
British Columbia spent C$801 million (about $601 million) fighting bushfires during the unusually hot 2021 bushfire season, which saw fires sweeping through the town of Lytton. But the province’s current fire prevention budget is only $32 million a year.
Similar disparities exist in other provinces, which tend to invest in small community-based programs that protect villages and towns rather than mitigating the risk of forest fires, increasing the threat of out-of-control wildfires.
Small programs are helpful, involving measures such as clearing forest soil on the outskirts of cities and creating firebreaks between settlements and forests. But broader measures are needed to reduce fleeing fires, experts said.
One fire prevention method Canada should expand, experts said, is prescribed burning, a practice that involves setting a specific area ablaze under controlled conditions to incinerate trees, deadwood, shrubs and other materials that they could otherwise be fuel for fires.
It also stimulates ecological restoration, clearing the canopy cover to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor and promote new growth, as well as opening the cones of some tree species to loose seeds.
« It’s a great technique, but we haven’t used it much in Canada, » said Daniel Perrakis, a fire scientist at the Canadian Forest Service. “With climate change, we are clearly seeing different fire behavior.”
Some Indigenous communities – who are disproportionately affected by fires because they often live in fire-prone areas – have adopted the practice of controlled burning.
Two years ago, as a record-breaking heat wave exacerbated wildfires across British Columbia, some of the flames roared near Westbank First Nation, an Indigenous community in the Okanagan Valley. But years of forest thinning and managing their land use cultural burning practices prevented the fire from causing serious damage to the community.
Across Canada, there are a handful of controlled burns each year, according to partial data compiled by the National Forest Database. Foresters looking to carry them out have to go through a lengthy process to get approval from a province.
Burns are generally unpopular in places like public parks, and even more so when they go bad. In 1995, more than 1,000 people have been evacuated after a prescribed burn spiraled out of control and threatened the city of Dubreuilville, Ontario.
In some fire seasons, the length of the approval process exceeds the narrow window when weather conditions are favorable for controlled burns.
The rules minimize the risk of an out-of-control prescribed burn, but increase the risk of an out-of-control fire.
« Essentially, you’ve handcuffed people — foresters and loggers — from being able to successfully get out of prescribed burns because we’ve made the rules so onerous and so restrictive » causing more bushfire fuel to sit on the forest floor, he said Sarah Bros, a forester and co-owner of Merin Forest Management based in North Bay, Ontario who has been running prescribed fires. « Harvesting doesn’t do what Mother Nature does. »
Budget cuts in the late 1990s, prompted by then Prime Minister Paul Martin, known as « deficit killer” – left a few government agencies intact, reducing those of the Canadian Forest Service size of staff from 2,200 to 700 people it employs today.
« There was an incredible brain drain, » said Edward Struzik, a fellow at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University in Ontario and author of the book « Dark Days at Noon: The Future of Fire. »
« People were mortified, and continue to be mortified, that we have this situation unfolding, this new firefighting paradigm, and the Forest Service is just getting pocket change to deal with it, » he said.
And Bilefsky contributed reporting from Montreal. Remy Tumino contributed reporting from New York.