A world on fire
By Jim Poling Sr.
Published Nov. 22, 2018
Through snowflake-speckled windows I watch stately trees sagging beneath the weight of the early November snowfall. It is a winter picture that denies the existence of wildfires.
Yet the wildfires are there, on the television screens, in newspaper stories and photos and on social media sites. Walls of flames consuming huge pieces of California, its people and their possessions.
The images are only camera views, and they come from 2,000-plus miles away, so they are no threat and can be forgotten easily. They shouldn’t be because wildfires are an increasing threat to our country, and the world.
This year alone there have been 6,845 wildfires in Canada, more than double the 25-year average of 3,000. They burned 2.2 million hectares of land and forests. Last year 5,305 wildfires burned 3.4 million hectares.
Ontario alone had 1,325 fires that consumed 276,356 hectares in 2018, and that’s close to double the annual average of 757 fires burning 111,487 hectares. A July fire was close to home, burning 11,000 hectares in the Parry Sound area, threatening to shut down Highway 69.
We Canadians tend to think of wildfires as forest fires that burn bushes, trees, and cause grief to wildlife. In fact, they are becoming more of a threat to the places where we live, our homes and our other possessions.
A most recent and terrifying example is the Fort McMurray, Alberta fire of 2016. Upwards of 88,000 people in the city and surrounding areas were evacuated – the largest wildfire evacuation in Canadian history. Also, it was the costliest disaster in Canadian history.
No one died directly in the fire, however, thousands of lives were changed.
My own family history tells a lot about how wildfires change lives. My grandparents and their young family escaped from the Great Minnesota Fires that destroyed their hometown of Cloquet, near Duluth, in 1918. I remember a photograph of my grandmother holding my father and his older brother as she stood in water (likely the St. Louis River) as flames engulfed their town.
Hundreds of people died in the fires and many hundreds more lost their homes and jobs. The paper mill where my grandfather worked was destroyed. He moved the family to Canada to get work in another mill.
The Cloquet fire that changed my family history was touched off by human activity - sparks from a train. Roughly one third of wildfires are started by human activity. Lightning strikes cause the rest.
The increase in wildfires is not just a North American thing. The number of fires this year across Europe is up 40 percent on average.
With statistics showing wildfires becoming more frequent, we must work harder to reduce human causes, plus find fresh ways to control fires when they start and reduce the areas that they burn.
The best way to achieve that is to listen to the experts. There are thousands of wildfire and climate experts with the science backgrounds and experience needed to find solutions. They need to have a bigger voice in saying how we can lessen the threat.
One person who thinks he is an expert, but definitely is not, is the president of the United States who says that wildfires can be prevented by raking the forest floors.
“We gotta take care of the floors, you know, the floors of the forest. Very important,” he said during a tour of the California devastation in which he mistakenly called the burned out town of Paradise, “Pleasure.”
One of the scientists worth listening to is Australian David Bowman, a global wildfire expert often quoted in the world media.
“Growing cities, poor planning, recurring heat waves, more people living closer to forests and more combustible landscapes have together created a more fire-prone world,” Bowman has said. Add in climate change, which is accelerating ecological instability.
“It is causing fire seasons to start earlier and finish later. We are seeing more severe, more intense and longer lasting wildfires causing more loss of life and property. Fires used to be seen as local, but we should see them as part of a global-scale phenomenon.”
Wildfires are a threat to our future. We need to take that threat seriously.