Wildfires in Canada have so far scorched forests totaling the size of the state of Virginia. The province of Quebec recorded its biggest blaze ever this month as it advanced across an area 13 times as large as New York City. Mega fires, so vast and ferocious that they simply cannot be fought, have erupted across the country.
Even as thousands of Canadians and firefighters from abroad continued to battle more than 900 fires, Canada’s record-shattering wildfire season has made it clear that traditional firefighting methods are no longer enough, experts in wildfires and forests say.
Instead of focusing on putting out flames, wildfire agencies, provincial governments and the logging industry must carry out fundamental changes to prevent fires from igniting and spreading in the first place, they say.
They include steps like closing forests to people when conditions are ripe for fires and increasing patrols to spot smaller fires earlier, when there is still a chance to contain them.
New strategies are crucial because wildfires, in the vastness of Canada, are expected to become increasingly difficult to combat as they grow more frequent and bigger in the hotter and drier conditions resulting from climate change.
“We can add billions and billions and billions of dollars, and even then we wouldn’t be able to extinguish all the wildfires,’’ said Yves Bergeron, an expert on forest ecology and management at the University of Quebec. “We need a paradigm shift from viewing the role of wildfire agencies as putting out fires to protecting human society.’’
Across Canada, wildfire agencies and provincial governments have been fighting forest fires the way they have always done it, experts say: reacting to outbreaks of fires by trying to suppress them or prevent them from spreading, or letting remote blazes far from communities and vital infrastructure simply burn.
Some provinces followed up by banning the use of fire in forests and eventually by closing forests altogether.
But so many wildfires erupted across Canada at the same time — even in eastern provinces like Quebec and Nova Scotia that usually don’t experience the kind of outbreaks common in western Canada — that wildfire agencies were overwhelmed, even with overseas reinforcements.
Quebec’s agency, with the capacity to fight about 30 fires simultaneously, has been confronted with three to four times as many, experts said.
With a couple of months left in the wildfire season, the result has already been nearly 28 million acres of forests burned, a record for a single wildfire season and five times the annual average.
More than 155,000 people have been evacuated from their homes at some point, some more than once, and three firefighters have been killed. Smoke from the fires has wafted down into the United States and across to Western Europe, darkening skies and turning the air quality hazardous.
“We’ve been too reactive,’’ said Michael Flannigan, an expert on fire management at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.
In provinces where human activity is suspected to have caused fires, like Alberta and Nova Scotia, officials implemented fire bans and closed forests, but only after blazes had already ignited and spread, and even though conditions before the outbreaks had indicated a high risk, Mr. Flannigan said.
“Alberta and Nova Scotia both used forest closures this year, but they used them too late, after the fires were burning across the landscape,’’ Mr. Flannigan said. “In Alberta’s case, you could see this upper ridge, this extreme weather event — hot, dry and windy — coming a week in advance.’’
Forest closures are “very unpopular but very effective at stopping human-caused fires,’’ Mr. Flannigan said.
Political leaders reluctantly close forests, and even then only gradually, experts say, in part because of a loss of revenue and the unpopularity of shutting off access to public lands.
But closing forests early when conditions grow extremely risky — and eliminating human activity that can spark fires, from recreational camping to the use of all-terrain vehicles — means the restrictions can be lifted fairly quickly, experts said.
Cordy Tymstra, a consultant on wildfire management and a former science coordinator with Alberta’s Wildfire Management agency, said Canadian provinces should follow the example of Australia, another country that often faces significant wildfires and where forests are automatically closed when certain weather conditions exist.
“We need to go to an apolitical approach or system that’s automated,’’ Mr. Tymstra said. “Sorry, the forest is closed. You can’t drive your A.T.V. down that trail.’’
It is critical to close forests early in the face of extremely hot, dry and windy conditions because any resulting fires typically lead to the most destruction. In Canada, three percent of wildfires account for 97 percent of burned forests, Mr. Flannigan said.
In areas where wildfires tend to be caused by lightning like British Columbia, Mr. Tymstra said, patrols should be increased on risky days. The strategy should be to spot fires as soon as possible to take advantage of a small window of perhaps as little as 20 minutes to try to extinguish them before they become more dangerous and harder to control.
“Your best investment is to hit them hard, hit them fast, before they get past a certain size,’’ Mr. Tymstra said.
“This year has been a very loud call for change,’’ he added. “We need transformational change, a big rethink.’’
Canada, whose vast boreal forest is considered one of the world’s biggest terrestrial carbon vaults, must shift to a policy of both mitigating and preventing fires, experts said.
In Quebec, the wildfire agency has historically focused on extinguishing fires in commercially viable logging areas, Mr. Bergeron said. It should refocus on making communities and infrastructure more resistant to fires by, for example, creating buffers made up of less flammable trees or plants.
Reducing or eliminating power lines running through forests would decrease ignitions, experts said. Managed burns, common in some parts of the western United States, could be used to lessen the flammability of forests.
Encouraging the logging industry to cut in mosaic patterns could slow down the spread of fires. Urging the industry to plant faster-growing but commercially less valuable tree species, like the jack pine, would quicken forest regeneration.
But these changes would be costly and some, like those related to logging, would require delicate negotiations with a politically powerful industry. Reforms would also have to take place in each of the provinces, which are in charge of fighting fires in their territories.
Wildfire agencies, Mr. Tymstra said, have been slow to get out of their traditional “comfort zone” of just focusing on putting out fires.
“The model of fighting all the fires all the time, we lose,’’ Mr. Flannigan said. “The area burned in Canada has doubled since the 70s,” he said, driven “largely, not solely, by human-caused climate change.’’
This year’s wildfires — as well as a string of record-breaking temperatures in Canada’s far north — have pushed to the forefront the issue of managing the country’s forests as the country and the rest of the world gets hotter.
With climate change, Canada’s wildfire season starts earlier in the spring and ends later in autumn. The biggest and most destructive fires have grown in size in recent decades and are expected to keep growing, said Yan Boulanger, an expert on forest ecology at the Canadian Forest Service who has worked on modeling how Canadian forests will evolve.
“It will become more and more difficult to fight these big fires,’’ Mr. Boulanger said. “The harsher the climate becomes, the fires will become more intense in the amount of energy they release. We saw this year some fires release so much energy that they couldn’t be fought directly by water-bomber planes, much less by firefighters on the ground.’’
“These fires will be much more intense and we’ll have a lot more of them,’’ Mr. Boulanger said, adding that the resulting smoke “will reach the United States, maybe not every year, but very commonly.’’