On June 29, 2021, thermometers reached 49.6° C in Lytton, British Columbia, the hottest temperature ever recorded in Canada. The following day a wildfire, stoked by drought conditions and 70 km/h winds, destroyed 90% of the village and led to the death of two individuals. In 2019 - 2020, Australia experienced the worst bushfire season on record. Dozens of people died, more than 10 million hectares of land burned and some estimate that over 1 billion animals died, bringing some species closer to extinction. In 2020, California experienced wildfires of historic proportion. That same year, Brazil faced over 44,000 fire outbreaks between January and August in the Amazonas and Pantanal. In the summer of 2021, unprecedented wildfires broke out in Greece and Portugal, countries that are not ordinarily associated with such natural disasters.
All of this and more set the stage for the February 2022 release of the United Nations Environment Programme/GRID-Arendal rapid response assessment report, Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires. The report reflects the contributions of over 50 global experts from NGOs and government. It paints a picture of a planet that is becoming increasingly hot, “turning landscapes into tinderboxes”, with more extreme weather, including deeper droughts and hotter, drier winds. All is not negative. The report is a call for all to learn to live with fire and take steps to better manage and mitigate the risk of wildfires to human health and safety, the economy, wildlife, and climate.
The report makes a compelling case for governmental and transnational action to prevent and combat wildfires. People are not yet prepared for wildfires that burn longer and hotter and over wider areas where wildfires are expected, nor is the world prepared for wildfires in drying peatlands and on thawing permafrost. Citing the prominent medical journal, The Lancet, the report states that annual exposure to wildfire smoke results in more than 30,000 deaths across 43 countries studied. Wildfires in areas of high biodiversity can lead to extinction of entire species.
The report identifies three crucial steps:
Emphasis of the report is placed on risk reduction. Technology can only do so much; after considering weather, fuel availability and site accessibility, a change in the weather is usually all that can bring a wildfire under control. Greater emphasis on fuel management through controlled burns (keeping in mind the attendant risk), physical removal, or chemical treatment, and other hazard reduction actions can prevent the frequency and intensity of wildfires. Here the traditional land management knowledge of Indigenous groups can play a role.
Integrated wildlife management is seen as the key to adapting to current and future changes in global wildfire risk management. This is based on what is described as the “5Rs”; along with the traditional response, there is review and analysis, risk reduction, readiness and recovery. The report calls for the allocation of the bulk of resources to risk reduction, whereas it is currently spent on response.
The authors of the report make a series of nine recommendations to reduce and mitigate the global effects of wildfires:
There is much more in the report. Geographically, it covers the globe with case studies from the Siberian Taiga to the Amazon rainforests. Topically, it deals with everything from fuel reduction to availability of insurance as a mitigation tool. It is a detailed but compelling read.
The data is there, as are the recommendations. They are there for the policy makers and politicians to act upon.
John Stefaniuk is a lawyer practising in environmental and natural resource law in the Manitoba-based law firm Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP.
This article was written for Mid-Canada Forestry and Mining magazine and is reproduced with permission.
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