Fort McMurray Recovery Efforts

In the aftermath of the massive wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, some experts are calling for a heavier use of Canada’s wildfire strategy. Toddi Steelman, executive director and professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability, points to the American approach and resources directed at wildfires in a recent op-ed in The Globe and Mail. “In the United States, a wildfire industrial complex wakens each year and is fed by up to $4-billion (U.S.) in federal funds annually,” writes Steelman. “The country has 13 incident-management teams at the ready to fight the largest and most complex fires, with fleets of aircraft, troops and heavy equipment. It is a costly model that is mainly effective at protecting people and property, and probably perpetuates the wildfire problem by putting out too many fires that could have a positive ecological effect on the landscape.”

While copying the U.S. approach verbatim would be, in Steelman’s words, “a mistake,” she sees benefit in pulling elements into a Canadian context. “For example, there may be value in establishing an elite team that is available across Canada that can build experience in managing complex interface fires,” she writes.

In rejuvenating the Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy, established in 2005, Steelman argues that communities can take a larger role in being prepared and responding to wildfire, with drills, public information plans and other tenets of disaster management.

“If communities anticipate wildfire, they could do more to prepare their landscape to be more fire ready. The boreal forest wants to burn catastrophically – that is part of its ecology,” says Steelman.

A unique part of the ecological system in Canada requires adaptation, such as in the use of fuel treatments as a stopgap to allow for evacuation rather than a fire management method, says Steelman. “But fuel breaks can buy a bit of time to allow for evacuation, especially if people are prepared and ready to leave. And houses and properties that are made fire safe are more likely to survive when ash and embers descend as the fire approaches; provincial and territorial grants, with federal matching funds, could finance part of this work.”