Runner Run-Down: Understanding Wildfires

They have many causes, but we need better solutions

Courtesy of the Premier of Alberta / Flickr

Earlier this month we were hit with one of the biggest wildfires in Canadian history. The fire at Fort McMurray may even become the costliest disaster in Canadian history. The Bank of Montreal has already released an evaluation suggesting that it might cost the insurer up to $9-billion, without including the different costs of moving 80,000 refugees, or the cost that the local industries have to take due to lack of business.

Obviously, this was not the only wildfire this month—there was also the “little” 0.2 hectare fire near Powell River. Although this is a significant difference in scale and size, both are wildfires nonetheless. A person caused the fire at Powell River, while the cause of the fire at Fort McMurray is still undetermined.

There’s a lot of speculation around whether or not someone started the Fort McMurray fire. If someone started it, it could still be quite innocent in nature—it could be someone who threw a cigarette butt in a particularly dry area, or not containing sparks from a barbecue. As far as we know, it could have been entirely from natural causes, like a lightning strike at the wrong place at the wrong time, which is a leading cause of wildfires in Canada. It could even be due to bacterial fermentation that could trap enough heat to make some organic matter get hot enough to combust. The same process used to make alcoholic beverage could start a fire so rapidly that it is often called “spontaneous combustion.”

The most important part of understanding how this could happen is to understand the conditions. All wildfires need some organic matter as a fuel, which could include wood, roots, peats, debris, grass and vines. Contrary to the demand of the knights who says Ni, do not bring back a shrubbery to an area with such a wild fire, as the shrubbery might end up on fire as well.

That said, it might make the quest of King Arthur rather interesting if his knight had to carry a shrubbery on fire, but it would certainly not make anyone’s life safer.

A dry and hot climate makes an inferno easier to start because it allows the flames easier “access” to the carbon. This is why some people blame global warming for the Fort McMurray fire—long dry spells are now more frequent due to global warming and provide exactly the kind of climate that encourages wildfire. Still, it’s not entirely accurate to say that the Fort McMuray fire was caused by global warming because this fire is only one event. It might not be dishonest, as many people confuse statistical trends and statistical variations.

Paul Richard, one of Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s environmental science experts, likens the idea of global warming increasing the likelihood of forrest fires to doping increasing an athlete’s performance in sports; nobody can really single out any one of the 73 home runs Barry Bonds hit in 2001 as a result of steroids, but looking at the entire set of statistics it is easy to conclude that steroids were influential to his record. If we take the metaphor that the planet is on steroids, nobody can really say that global warming causes this particular fire, but we can say that it is a factor in causing many wildfires that would not otherwise exist.

A solution to preventing such fires is to use controlled burning. Controlled burning strategically set parts of the forest on fire during the winter to avoid or reduce the number of fires in the summer. It is also done to restrict access to certain animals, create meadows, or maintain areas for crops. This is also a practice used by some First Nations, although they were banned from the practice in the 1930s when the government was apparently trying to prevent all forest fires. At that time, controlled fires were perceived to be destructive to farms, although this is not typically the case.

Although many practices of different First Nations have been met by snobbery, it is clear that they have the right idea. The massive destruction at Fort McMurray has significant economic effects, and evidently we can’t afford to have such widespread, damaging wildfires on a regular basis. Global warming means that we have a greater risk of an increasing number of fires, and this ultimately means that we need to find more efficient preventative measures.