Fighting fire in the Pyrocene

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I had a chance to moderate an event at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts last weekend.

The sun was red in the sky from the latest wave of smoke from wildfires burning across the province as I took the stage with Ed Struzik and Aaron Williams. 

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Struzik has been researching and writing about environmental issues for years, and his latest book is Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future. Williams has written a memoir of his time with the BC Wildfire Service called Chasing Smoke.

These guys know fire, and what they had to say was unsettling. The audience reaction suggested a lot of us still haven’t adjusted to the realities of life in the Pyrocene – the age of fire.

As someone who lives in the interface, where the forest meets the first rank of homes in a community, I’ve become used to thinking of wildfire as a major threat. I haven’t thought much about it as a potential ally, but Struzik and Williams have.

Williams said controlled burning as a tactic to fight fires is finally becoming more accepted. “The last couple of years these fires have been so big and so aggressive, there’s no other way… You hear the odd complaint that this is irresponsible, what if the winds shift and stuff like that? It’s a chance you have to take, otherwise things could end up a lot worse,” he told us.

Struzik looked at controlled burns from the strategic perspective – as a way to promote forest health and fire resistance.

The idea that this is hardly new knowledge comes through in a line from his book’s dedication: “To the First Nations people of Canada and the North American native people of the United States, with apologies for our failure to view wildfire the way you once did.”

Struzik told the audience the demonization of wildfire started to take root after a major 1910 fire in the region where B.C., Alberta and Montana meet, and it led to Indigenous people being forced out of Yellowstone, Yosemite, Banff and Jasper national parks because of their traditional use of burning “as a way of managing the landscape for their benefit and the benefit of wildlife.”

Earlier this year, the province released an independent review of the 2017 flood and wildfire seasons, “Addressing the New Normal: 21st Century Disaster Management in British Columbia.”

It recommends collaboration with First Nations, “to enable the integration of traditional ecological knowledge with Western science,” and calls for a “strategic shift” to increased use of traditional and prescribed burning to reduce wildfire risk and regenerate ecosystems.

The report goes on to say, “The loss of managed fire as a land management option is likely one of several key factors contributing to recent dramatic increases in unwanted wildfires.”

If that recommendation seems familiar, it might be because former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon’s report on the devastating 2003 wildfire season said something similar.

That it has to be restated 15 years later as a “strategic shift” makes me wonder whether our governments have adjusted to the realities of life in the Pyrocene.

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