John Vaillant writes in his recently published book, “Fire Weather”, about the trillions of controlled burns that happen around the globe every day. These tiny, brief fires mix air and fossil fuel to create an explosion that drives a piston up and down within a cylinder in internal combustion engines. That physical motion is harnessed to make cars and trucks roll, heavy machinery dig, lawn mower blades spin, etc.
Those tiny controlled burns have resulted in gigantic uncontrolled burns that are running rampant across landscapes all over Spaceship Earth. “People think of a fire like their camp fire… like it’s contained. Like it’s just going to be a wall of fire. But when it gets windy enough, and hot enough, the fire comes at you with hundreds of thousands of hot embers spewing out the top of it and going a half a mile in front of it.” – Canadian fire fighter interviewed by John Vaillant.
When attributing the cause of a wildfire, it is important to distinguish between the factors that cause a fire to ignite and those that cause vegetation to become so dry that it is primed to burn. Climate change alone cannot ignite a fire – a spark from an ignition source or lightning is necessary.
Yet the role of climate change in heightening the risk of wildfires cannot be ignored. The world is, on average, 1.2°C warmer than in the pre-industrial climate, and this extra heat is bringing more frequent heatwaves and droughts. These weather conditions make the environment more fire-prone, and their increasing frequency has exposed already fire-susceptible regions such as the Mediterranean and Canada’s massive boreal forest to greater risk of disaster.
The Fire Weather Index
The Fire Weather Index (FWI) uses weather data to predict wildfires. It indicates fire intensity by combining the rate of fire spread with the amount of fuel being consumed.
The index considers temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, precipitation, drought conditions, fuel availability, vegetation characteristics and topography. This model allows you to experiment with different factors which indicate how likely a region is to experience wildfires.
This summer (in the Northern Hemisphere) there have been major wildfires in southern Europe, Siberia, north Africa, Mexico and elsewhere. (As I sit here in my home office in Portland, there are two dozen wild fires burning, in various degrees of containment, within Oregon. The air is hazy, but I don’t smell wood smoke.)
Canada is experiencing an historic wild fire season, so I’ll focus there. It started early this year with mass evacuations in Alberta and Nova Scotia in May. 30 million acres have burnt so far.
Canada is used to wildfires. But this year is different with smoke spreading across large parts of the US (and as far as western Europe) at the start of July. The CO2 emissions from the fires will dwarf those emitted by fossil fuels burned in Canada this year.
Who is responsible for the emissions when forests burn? Wildfire emissions aren’t even recorded on the balance sheet of any particular country’s ledger. Our climate crisis is a global problem… one we must tackle together. In 2021, wildfires across Spaceship Earth contributed more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than any nation except China, the US and India. Whose responsibility is that?
A firefighting approach designed to protect humans and human settlements, and allowing remote forests to burn, is sensible if the goal is to reduce property damage and loss of human life. But if the costs to human health of wildfire smoke are larger than from the fires themselves, should the objective be recalibrated? If the aim is to manage the health of the planet by limiting CO2 emissions from wildfires, what kind of approach does that require? In California the record-setting fire season of 2020 entirely erased the state’s emission reductions over the previous 16 years – putting twice as much carbon into the atmosphere as was saved by all of its decarbonization policies from 2003 to 2019.
Canada is the world’s second-largest country, with a population roughly a quarter that of Russia (the largest country in land mass). 85% of Canadians live within 150 miles of the US/Canada border. So there are vast stretches of forest (and mountains and prairies) that are relatively uninhabited by people. How can those remote fires be monitored, managed and contained?
Fire containment practices must change because the fires themselves are changing.
“The most powerful firefighting equipment that humans have – Canadair planes that cost $35 million each and drop 30 bathtubs’ worth of water at a time – can extinguish fires with an intensity of up to 10,000 kilowatts per meter of fire line,” Henry Mance wrote recently in The Financial Times. “Today’s megafires are a different order of magnitude, sometimes exceeding 100,000 kilowatts per meter.” Water dumped from above on these megafires evaporates before it reaches the ground.
John Vaillant said in an interview with David Wallace Wells of the New York Times, “We had a ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists’ attitude with nature. When it did things that we (humanity) didn’t like, we suppressed them. Fire is now forcing us to negotiate.”
Negotiate with whom, though?1
We have painted ourselves into a corner. We’ve allowed the atmosphere to warm to the point where the impacts are real, here now, and growing in intensity and frequency. Even if we stop our controlled burns (inside internal combustion engines and elsewhere), it will take a while for temperature to stabilize and eventually decrease. In the meantime, the impacts of our climate crisis will continue. So we must adapt how we live with wildfires, and how we fight them.
A majority of the citizens of wealthy countries can just pick up and move out of harm’s way if they live in a fire zone. They may get less money for their house than they expected, but it still (as of right now) has value. What if you don’t want to move? Or if you can’t due to economic or other reasons? Here are some steps you can take to safeguard your property and your family:
Minimize Wildfire Fuel
Controlled burns are low-intensity, intentional fires used for thousands of years by Indigenous peoples as a land restoration tool. Controlled burns boost a forest’s resilience and reduce the amount of fuel available to feed a wildfire.
Remove all combustible materials such as firewood and lumber stored within 10 meters of the perimeter of your home and under decks. Remove all combustible ground cover like mulch, plants and shrubs within five meters of the perimeter.
In fire country, there are businesses that rent out herds of goats. The goats eat all the scrub, leaving nothing but dirt and manure pellets behind.
Increase Forest Resiliency
Resilience is a measure of the forest’s adaptability to a range of stresses and reflects the functional integrity of the ecosystem. Low-density forests have fewer trees and brush, allowing larger trees to grow stronger and more resilient.
Not only are low-density forests more resilient to severe wildfire, they are more resilient to drought, bark beetles and extreme heat.
Build Using Wildfire Resistant Materials
Earth blocks are an engineered form of compressed and stabilized mud. Adobe bricks have been used for over 10,000 years and they withstand wildfires. Earth blocks are fire resistant, and they can also survive earthquakes and hurricanes.
Defensible Space Zones
Defensible space is the buffer between the building and the vegetation or any wild area that surrounds it. This space is needed to stop or at least slow the spread of wildfires. It helps protect houses from catching fire and also provides firefighters with a safe space from where they can defend buildings from fire.
Fire Resistant Upgrades
Replace weather stripping on all doors including garage doors, add a three-millimeter non-combustible screen to all external vents, and install non-combustible ground surfaces within 1.5 meters of the house.
Wooden fences and decks should be replaced with non-combustible materials such as stone or metal. Install fire-resistant roof covering, non-combustible siding, multi-pane or tempered glass windows and fire rated doors.2
The next several years will be the most critical in the history of man in determining our fates going forward. Our climate crisis will hit us hard, but we can cushion the blow by taking urgent action now to adapt to a hotter, more fire prone world.
If you want to learn more about the fiery era we are entering, here’s a list of books on the topic: