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Fort McMurray got lucky, but someday a community won't

Wildfires remain one of the greatest threats to ski resorts

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From New Mexico to Alberta, people in mountain towns across the Rocky Mountains were talking about the potential for wildfires last week. Snow remains on the ground, with still more expected. Isn't the fear premature?

No, says Edward Struzik, the Edmonton-based author of the 2017 book, Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future. Big fires are coming, and the only real question is whether your community has taken adequate precautions to prevent it from being destroyed and also assembled evacuation plans.

Struzik said that when he began looking into writing the book, he worried that he had missed his opportunity, because the fires had come and gone. Now, he believes his book will unfortunately have a long shelf life.

"We are just in this era of big fires. It may not be so tough this year," said Struzik. "We generally see big fires during El Niño events, and we're somewhere between La Niña and El Niño now. But I am absolutely convinced there will be a big fire somewhere. There always is."

In his book, Struzik recounts with vivid, telling details the Fort McMurray fire of 2016. It had been an unusually dry winter, but spring temperatures on May 1, the day the fire began, reached 33 degrees Celsius. Firefighters dispatched to the scene were unnerved. Still, public officials downplayed the threat. Even some firefighting leaders didn't grasp the danger.

Then winds picked up, the flames roared, and lightning spit out of the tower of smoke. Soon, 100,000 residents of Fort McMurray (technically, the municipality of Wood Buffalo) and surrounding areas were driving south on the new four-lane highway to Edmonton.

Behind them, the fire destroyed 2,400 homes and other buildings, causing $9 billion in damage, the costliest disaster in Canadian history.

It could have been worse. Nobody died, but Struzik believes that was a matter of luck and little more.

"They got lucky," he said. "The wind changed at the last second. Too, demographics favoured them. Nobody goes to retire at Fort McMurray. It's not an aging population. The work is in the oil sands, and so most of them take safety training. The first thing you learn is to listen to what people tell you in an emergency. The fact that they had a new four-lane highway to Edmonton, replacing the old two-lane highway, was another way they got lucky."

Without those circumstances, Struzik believes it's quite possible 3,000 or 4,000 people might have died.

Banff has done a table-top exercise in how to evacuate 25,000 people at the peak of summer but it's a rarity in Canada. Struzik is unaware of many other places in Canada that have done prepared evacuation plans.

"We are playing Russian roulette with this, and there's not just one bullet in the chamber anymore. There are a lot more bullets," he said.

Struzik was in Los Angeles last weekend to talk about what he learned in writing "Firestorm." He said he was awed by the power of big fires. They can move fast, of course. The front edge of flames at Fort McMurray moved seven or eight kilometres in just a few hours. But the cloud of smoke also produced its own lightning bolts, sending out strikes that ignited new fires 32 kilometres away.

"That just blew me away," he says. "It was so intense it was shooting out lightning and ignited a cluster of fires 34 km away from the fire front."

Big fires are not new. In 1910, fires in northern Idaho and western Montana burned five million acres and produced hurricane-force winds and a Dante-like vision of hell for the new 20th century. Timothy Egan, the New York Times columnist who lives in Seattle, wrote a book about it, The Big Burn. That fire killed 86 people, mostly firefighters. It was not, however, the deadliest fire in U.S. history. That distinction belongs to the Peshtigo fire of 1871, which killed an estimated 1,500 people in Wisconsin.

The 1910 conflagration produced the public policy of fire suppression practiced for much of the 20th century by U.S. land agencies. That policy of fire suppression was elevated to a religion described in Ivan Doig's novel English Creek. All fires were to be suppressed by 10 a.m. the next day. The Canadian government adopted a parallel policy.

This same philosophy was applied to national parks, places where nature in all its naturalness was presumed to be on display.

But even by the late 1960s, thinking had changed about stamping out all fires. Forests were not being renewed. Land agencies adopted let-burn policies and then later prescribed burns, trying to pre-empt nature. Both policies have had setbacks, as Struzik explained in his book.

In 1988, the hottest and driest in 110 years, a fire began in late June. Then it grew fierce, overwhelming the capacities of firefighters called in to contain it. Old Faithful Lodge nearly burned. There was a hue and cry and questions about who had "lost" Yellowstone. But soon, green sprouted amid the black. Today, 30 years later, you might not realize Yellowstone had been "lost."

The pushback from the Yellowstone fire slowed but did not stop efforts to reintroduce fire onto public lands. But often there was pushback, such as at Vail in the mid-1990s. There was even stronger pushback after a prescribed fire in New Mexico began on May 4, 2000, at Bandelier National Monument. Unexpected winds drove the fire into Los Alamos, burning 280 homes and threatening the nuclear weapons storehouses at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

But despite the risks of plans going awry, land agencies, including Parks Canada, continue to see prescribed fire as a necessary tool to reduce the risks of larger megafires.

Struzik credits Parks Canada with an aggressive program. "In the last 12 years, they have burned more than 1.5 million hectares in the 12 Western parks and well as three other parks in the East," he said. "That's a fair amount, but it's really not keeping up with what they need to do to sort of get back a natural forest."

Struzik blames the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper with undermining Parks Canada. The budget was cut, falling a third short of what was required, forcing retirement of key personnel, and resources were diverted from conservation to tourism promotion.

"That is not to say Parks Canada has not been doing a good job," said Struzik. "To a large extent, they have been ahead of the curve in Canada."

Lacking is a high-level consensus. Parks Canada, said Struzik, should be setting more fires but has been constrained. Burns are permitted only in the shoulder season, when there are fewer people around. Converting prized landscapes to ashes poses its own difficulties. Recovery can take decades. Decisions can be challenged, especially by local tourism interests.

Ordering such fires can be tough decisions for bureaucrats to make. If something goes wrong, they will be piled on. Instead, said Struzik, policies should be adopted at higher levels of government. Those officials can be held accountable or take credit.

Deeper yet is a cultural problem, residue of that post-1910 view that fires can be suppressed if just enough bombers, helicopters, and parachuting firefighters get dispatched. In recent years, more than half the U.S. Forest Service budget has been allocated to fighting fires.

Suppressing fires totally just cannot be done, and it's folly to even think so.

"We don't think that about tornadoes, earthquakes or tsunamis," said Struzik.

Communities can make themselves less vulnerable to wildfires. A program called FireWise in the United States and FireSmart in Canada lays out dozens of common-sense actions such as eliminating highly flammable untreated wood-shake shingles and removing trees growing close to houses.

But there's a tendency, like a driver roaring 100 mph down the highway, to forget what was in the rear-view mirror even just an hour ago. In 2002, Colorado had three major forest fires, but the lessons were soon forgotten as people moved once again to the forested foothills, lovely except during the hellacious fires. Then, again in 2012 and 2013, there were more major fires. Again, memories have been short.

In British Columbia, 2003 was a bad year, as 45,000 people had to be evacuated. The provincial government subsequently hired a former premier of Manitoba to look into what could and should be done. The report, described by Struzik as very forward looking, was mostly ignored. Several years later, again more fires, and again momentary attention, then amnesia.

Sixty per cent of Canadian communities are vulnerable to fire, with an even higher percentage among First Nations communities, said Struzik.

"Some year we will have a Fort McMurray fire where the wind won't change direction at the last minute," he said. It doesn't have to happen, he added, but the longer provinces and local communities wait, the greater the likelihood that it will.

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