Feds take initial step to counter 40-year decline in Canadian wildfire research

Mark Lowey
January 8, 2020

Canada has fallen behind other countries in investing in wildfire research and innovation, even as decades of forest fire suppression have left dangerously high fuel loads surrounding inadequately protected communities, while the warming climate is triggering more lightning strikes, scientists say.

After a steep, 40-year decline in the number of wildfire science programs and researchers, federal Budget 2019 provided $38.5 million over five years aimed at increasing Canada’s resilience to wildfire. The funding comes none too soon: modelling suggests overall fire occurrence will increase by 25% by 2030 and 74% by the end of the century.

“Other countries that have had some of the more recent damaging fires have put a lot more money towards fire research,” Mike Flannigan, renewable resources professor at the University of Alberta and director of the Canadian Partnership for Wildland Fire Science, said in an interview. “Now with this new funding, I would say we’ve turned the corner.”

Nevertheless, the historical decline “has really put Canada behind the eight ball,” says Lori Daniels, a forestry professor at the University of British Columbia. “We’re now seeing wildfires that are affecting communities and critical infrastructure, and are having impacts on literally tens of thousands of people simultaneously.”

The Canadian Forest Service (CFS) led the development of the 2018 Blueprint for Wildland Fire Science in Canada, a 10-year research plan. “The capacity of wildland fire science and technology in Canada is not keeping pace with the growing complexity of wildland fire,” the report said. It recommended establishing a national wildfire research agenda and increasing research investment.

“We need new science and innovation to transform not just what we know about wildland fire, but also how we manage for it and how we build our communities,” Mike Norton, director-general of the Northern Forestry Centre at Natural Resources Canada, said in an email to RE$EARCH MONEY.

The CFS is working with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to establish a university research network for wildfire science, “with a possible launch as early as spring 2020,” Norton said.

Wildfire’s impacts increasing

Since the 1970s, the area burned annually by wildfire in Canada has more than doubled, according to the CFS. Yet in the face of worsening impacts, the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers’ Canadian Wildfire Fire Strategy report (which also included a recommendation to develop a national wildfire strategy) was largely ignored, Edward Struzik, author of the book, Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape our Future, told RE$EARCH MONEY.

“With this latest Blueprint document, we really haven’t seen any meaningful action yet in trying to develop a national wildfire strategy. That’s what’s needed,” says Struzik, a fellow at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University.

The Budget 2019 funding, which averages $7.7 million per year over five years, "doesn't come anywhere near to what is required to deal with the (wildfire) situation," he says. “We’re seeing a situation now where we’re almost in a triage mode.”

So many forest fires were burning in British Columbia’s record-breaking 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons that there weren’t sufficient firefighters and resources in all of Canada to respond, Struzik says.

The Horse River wildfire that tore through Fort McMurray in early May 2016 became the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, with total insured losses of about $3.8 billion. The fire consumed almost 600,000 hectares, destroyed 2,400 buildings, and forced 88,000 people from their homes. Shutdowns of northern Alberta oil sands operations resulted in exports of refined energy products dropping by 16%, while Canada’s GDP fell 0.4%

Federal budget signals hopeful change

Wildfire specialist Brian Stocks, of B. J. Stocks Wildfire Investigations Ltd. in Sault Ste. Marie, helped investigate the Fort McMurray fire and the 2011 Slave Lake fire, which destroyed 40% of the town.

Stocks documented that from 2003 to 2012, the CFS’s wildfire research budget had dropped to an average $1.3 million per year of the agency’s overall R&D budget of about $100 million annually. In comparison, during the same period, the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $52 million per year on wildfire research, out of a total R&D budget of about $284 million annually.

As of last year, the CFS’s direct investment in wildfire research stood at about $3.8 million per year, but most of it went to pay salaries.

Then came Budget 2019, which provided $38.5 million over five years to Natural Resources Canada, through the CFS, for research and programming focused on increasing Canada’s resilience to fire. “This is a substantive increase over our operating budgets of the past number of years and demonstrates the federal government’s recognition of the growing challenge wildland fire represents,” Norton says.

Stocks says the new funding “is encouraging, but it will need to continue to grow and be sustainable beyond a five-year period.” In comparison, Canada now spends about $1 billion annually fighting wildfires, he notes. “It is hard to understand how we can spend $1 billion a year chasing fires around the country and spend such a small amount of money on research to prevent or mitigate these fires.”

Flannigan says the University of Alberta hopes to obtain some funding, from about $5 million allocated to NSERC, to modernize the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System, which has not been updated in decades.

Top wildfire research priorities

Forest scientists cite other urgent wildfire research priorities:

  • developing improved early-warning systems;
  • significantly increasing community preparation and protection measures;
  • enhancing social science research on wildfire's effects on people;
  • and improving vegetation maps to better understand the risks and hazards in the contemporary landscape.

There aren’t enough proactive on-the-ground measures to better protect hundreds of at-risk forest communities, Daniels says. “We’ve not taken it to the level that needs to be enacted in order to be adapted and prepared for wildfire, especially the kinds of wildfire that are projected as the climate continues to change.”

Following wildfires that burned into Kelowna and through Barriere-McLure in B.C. in 2003, the Filmon Firestorm Report identified 650,000 hectares of forest surrounding communities at high to extreme fire danger. But 15 years later, only a fraction of this wildland-urban landscape has been treated with tree thinning, FireSmart and other measures, Daniels says. “We’re orders of magnitude behind on what we need to be doing.”

Unlike in California, Australia and other places that have seen recent widespread wildfire catastrophes, Canada so far has been fortunate to escape significant loss of life in wildfires. “But the risk is real," says Flannigan. "As for communities or portions of communities burning down . . .  I can’t tell you exactly when or where, but it’s going to happen.”


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