With a federal election kicking off in a country beset by raging wildfires and punishing heat and drought, exhausted firefighters in Canada are pleading for patience and kindness from the public, and Indigenous communities are stepping up ever more strongly to the fight.
In British Columbia, which had 269 fires burning within its borders as of Sunday, authorities have issued a swath of new evacuation orders and alerts, particularly through the province’s south-central Thompson-Nicola and Columbia-Shuswap regions. Firefighters are focusing heavily on battling the monster Tremont Creek (43,733 hectares) and White Rock Lake (58,000 hectares) fires, both currently classified as out of control.
“I have never been more concerned than I am for what this province will face in the next ~36 hours,” Kevin Skrepnek, emergency program coordinator for the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, tweeted early Sunday. “There is the chance of (some) rain for a few areas by Sunday night/Monday, but between then and now we will have to navigate one of the most volatile combinations of natural and human factors that many of us have ever seen. An unprecedented wildfire season, our second major heat event, and the looming fourth wave of the pandemic are coalescing into one critical period. And: short of a complete and unseasonal weather shift, we have at least another month of wildfire activity ahead of us.”
So “all aboard the platitude express,” Skrepnek added, but “we need to be prepared, we need to be present, and we need to be patient…please: have a plan, a tank full of gas, and a backup plan. If you feel like your safety is at risk, don’t wait to be told by authorities to leave.”
The entire southern interior B.C. community of Logan Lake (population 2,000) was ordered to evacuate last Thursday as the Tremont Creek fire pressed close, reports CBC. There being no place for evacuees in the nearest cities of Armstrong (60 kilometres away) and Merritt (48 kilometres away) due to an influx of wildfire refugees arriving earlier in the summer, Logan Lake residents will be going to Chilliwack, 200 kilometres to the south.
The community is almost exactly equidistant between the now-lost town of Lytton, which burned to the ground on June 30, taking the lives of two residents with it and causing an estimated C$78 million in damages, and Monte Lake (summer season population 3,000), which was ravaged by the White Rock Lake fire on August 6, two days after residents were issued with an evacuation order.
Ken Gillis, chair of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, cited a B.C. Wildfire Service calculation that the White Rock Lake fire had travelled 18 kilometres in just eight hours. “I’ve talked to a number of firefighters who said this year’s fires are behaving in a manner that they have never seen before,” he said. “They’re just exceedingly aggressive and it’s almost impossible to get ahead of them.”
CBC News reports that strong winds, gusting as high as 60 kilometres per hour on Sunday, were expected to further feed the flames in the region. Confirming the bone-dry state of the province’s forests (despite a bit of rain last week), Cliff Chapman, director of provincial operations for the Wildfire Service, said that if the winds arrive as expected, “they will drive aggressive fire behaviour” and pose a direct threat to life and property.
Evacuation Orders Save Lives
At latest report, such behaviour in so-called “interface” fires (those endangering built structures or human populations) has led to more than 6,300 properties being evacuated across the province, and nearly 4½ times that number placed on alert so far this summer.
Citing the risk to firefighter safety, authorities are pleading with residents to obey evacuation orders. CBC reports that while hundreds have fled, some are determined to stay on to protect their property. B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said such actions are dangerously undermining firefighting effort.
“Evacuation orders are put in place to protect lives,” he said. “When people ignore that, then what often happens…is firefighters can be diverted from fighting fires to rescue them.”
Farnworth had made similar comments a week earlier following the destruction of Monte Lake, during which residents who ignored the hamlet’s evacuation order had to be rescued by firefighters. “While our crews were able to get the residents to safety, these brave firefighters very nearly paid with their lives,” Farnworth told CBC. “By any measure, this is completely unacceptable.”
Rick Manwaring, deputy minister of the provincial department that oversees B.C.’s wildlife service, likewise urged the public to heed evacuation orders. “The thought of losing community members terrifies me, and the entire wildfire service team here…We spend every day focusing on that…I urge everyone not to underestimate wildfires under these conditions.”
Likewise not to be underestimated are the impacts of exposure to wildfire smoke—recently detailed on YouTube by CBC—which many southern and coastal B.C. communities have been enduring for days on end at levels vastly exceeding World Health Organization guidelines. CBC adds that the ever-accelerating wildfire threat is becoming “an existential question” for some small B.C. towns in the southern Interior. “This summer marks the third time in five years that B.C. has seen more than half a million hectares burn in a wildfire season. In the 70 years prior to 2017, it only happened once.”
‘Patience and Kindness’
Firefighters are feeling the strain of the season, with one veteran of the B.C. Wildfire Service is describing it as “the most challenging summer” of his 16-year career, CBC reports. In an emotional appeal on Twitter, Kyle Young asked the public for “patience and kindness” as firefighters across the province struggle with a lack of resources and assistance—at a moment when staff and equipment are now desperately needed to fight fires all across North America.
“We aren’t getting the resources we usually would from other jurisdictions due to the immense fire danger across Canada and the United States,” Young tweeted. Noting that he constantly worries and second-guesses his decisions—“I wonder if I could have done something different, something better,” he said—an exhausted Young urged British Columbians “to come together and support each other.”
In the United States, The Globe and Mail writes, the U.S. Forest Service is “operating in crisis mode, fully deploying firefighters and maxing out its support system as wildfires continue to break out across the U.S. West, threatening thousands of homes and entire towns.”
More than double the number of last year’s firefighters are on the ground in the Pacific Southwest region, with an estimated 6,170 personnel alone battling the Dixie Fire in Northern California.
And it is more than firefighting resources that are being pushed to their limits by climate change. In a recent assessment of the financial damages caused by the Lytton fire, the Insurance Bureau of Canada is urging governments at all levels to “prioritize investments that build resilience and better protect families and communities,” CBC writes. “We all must do better to prepare for wildfires, floods, heat, hail, and windstorms,” said IBC Vice-President Aaron Sutherland.
Doug Ford Declines to Step Up
“These perils are having an outsized impact on those most vulnerable,” he added, and “we must greatly enhance our efforts to mitigate future change and adapt to the new weather reality we face.”
Early in August, The Globe reported that Indigenous leaders from hard-hit First Nations communities in Northwestern Ontario were calling on the province for more resources, asking Premier Doug Ford to declare a state of emergency in the region to expedite support.
Ford declined to do so, saying that while “we will put all the resources we have,” he and his government don’t want “the province coming in, taking over everything.” Instead, he said, the province hoped to collaborate with both First Nations and municipalities to combat the fires and protect communities.
Whether help arrives via edict or collaboration, leaders of local First Nations communities are asking for regional support systems to be strengthened so that evacuees are not forced to travel to distant cities like Toronto. Matthew Hoppe, chief executive officer of the Independent First Nations Alliance, a northern tribal council, told the Globe the province’s failure to take the concerns of remote communities seriously means that northwestern Ontario now has few options left to house wildfire evacuees. Currently, the evacuation of some 1,300 residents from Pikangikum has had to be put on hold, while families evacuated from Poplar Hill have in some cases been separated.
A Greater Say for Indigenous Management
But even as they struggle to secure resources, Indigenous communities in Ontario and across Canada are taking back a greater say in how wildfires are managed, in their own territories and from a federal perspective.
Brady Highway, a project manager with the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, is one leader pushing to see Indigenous practices, “including prescribed or deliberate burns, [once] widely used for ecological reasons such as increasing berry crops or improving wildlife habitat,” become part of the standard toolkit for fighting wildfire, writes the Globe.
Highway “wants to see that knowledge shared through a national Indigenous Fire Guardian network, with trained workers who could fight fires and also, potentially, set them—reflecting growing interest in reviving Indigenous fire practices that were discouraged or banned for much of the past century,” the paper adds.
Noting that such a network “would build on that of existing groups involved in fisheries, forestry, and habitat restoration”—industries that already are “the eyes and ears of what is going on on the land”—Highway pointed to the wrongheadedness of bringing in out-of-province firefighters when both staff capacity and Indigenous knowledge are so richly present across the country.
“It’s difficult for me to understand why you would be evacuating potential volunteer firefighters or other casual firefighters who have the experience and know-how to get around on their land—evacuate them, but import crews from other provinces,” he said.
A ‘Different-Looking Kootenays’
Also urging a rapid shift in approach to wildfires is Greg Utzig, a Kootenay-based expert in forest regeneration. Utzig told Kelowna’s Valley Voice the beautiful and beloved temperate forests that have for millennia lined the shores, valleys, and mountainsides of the Arrow, Slocan, and Kootenay lake areas are likely doomed, thanks to the human-driven climate crisis and the wildfires it is fuelling.
“It won’t happen all at once, and not everywhere. But by 2080, it will be a very different looking Kootenays,” writes the Voice.
Describing what he has learned through in-depth study of the forests surrounding Revelstoke, B.C., Utzig said the temperate forests of West Kootenay simply will not survive many more years of intense wildfire, which leaves canopies obliterated and topsoil incinerated down to bare rock. Any seedlings that do manage to take root will “wither away in the heat and parched conditions as average temperatures slowly climb 5 to 7°C in the coming decades.”
“Complicating and reinforcing the destruction,” adds the Voice, are pine beetle infestations, alongside ever more frequent extreme weather events that spark lightning and create tinder-dry blowdowns. And then there are the impacts of clearcutting, still widely favoured by industry in the area, which undermines ecosystem resiliency.
‘First, Stop Making it Worse’
But despite all that seems to stand against the still deceptively green and lush wilds of West Kootenay, Utzig “bristles at the suggestion there’s nothing that can be done.” He told the Voice the provincial government must act on the knowledge it has had “for at least a decade” and change its approach to logging to one that’s more sustainable—particularly as “every living thing” is affected by climate change.
“The first thing is, we can stop making it worse,” he said. “To say there’s nothing we can be doing is ridiculous. But finding the will to do it: that is the problem.”
And if government won’t take action? “We have elections coming,” said Utzig.
Outside North America, The Guardian reports that “smoke from raging forest fires in Siberia has reached the North Pole for the first time in recorded history, as a Russian monitoring institute warned the blazes were worsening.” The UK news outlet adds that local and international environmentalists “blame the authorities for letting large areas burn every year under a law that allows them not to intervene if the cost of fighting fires is greater than the damage caused or if they do not affect inhabited areas.”
The Associated Press reports that wildfires in Algeria have killed at least 42 people, including 25 soldiers who died trying to rescue citizens “from wildfires ravaging mountain forests and villages east of Algeria’s capital.”
In an echo of recent news from Turkey, the Algerian government seems to be using the tragedy to political purpose, floating theories that the wildfires were deliberately set by those with criminal intent.