The era of the mega-fire began in the late 1980s and unfortunately it did not peak in Fort McMurray last week.
There are more – and probably bigger fires to come.
Mega-fires are wildfires that are so intense, so fast moving and so large they are impossible to stop, even by the best-trained suppression crews.
Once rare events, they have now become common largely because of climate change and because effective wildfire suppression over decades has caused fuel to build up in the forests.
The people of Fort McMurray are the latest to experience the terror of seeing a mega-fire coming. The residents of Slave Lake, Alta., went through that in 2011, as did the people in Kelowna, B.C., in 2003, when the Okanagan Mountain Park fire destroyed 239 homes.
Those in Fort St. John, in northeast B.C., can be forgiven for wondering if they might be next, with heavy smoke drifting over the Peace River region this week as crews struggle to bring several fires under control.
A 2011 global assessment of the changing nature of wildfire by the United Nations states that China’s Great Black Dragon Fire in 1987 “perhaps marks the beginning of the mega fire phenomenon in the modern era.”
That fire killed over 200 people and burned 1.2 million hectares.
“In many parts of the world, the number of large wildfires has been increasing at an alarming rate,” states the UN paper. “These extraordinary conflagrations are unprecedented in the modern era for their deep and long-lasting social, economic, and environmental impacts.”
Big fires are not new, of course.
In 1871 the Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin and Michigan burned over 1 million hectares and left more than 1,500 people dead. In 1950 the Wisp fire consumed 1.4 million hectares north of Fort St. John, burning through what is now B.C.’s gas and oil patch.
What is new is the frequency of those very large fires. Starting in about 2003, it became apparent that mega-fires had become common. That year there were two mega-fires in B.C. – the one in Kelowna, which forced the evacuation of 33,000 people, and the McLure fire, north of Kamloops, which damaged 72 homes and caused nearly 4,000 people to flee. There were also several mega-fires in California in 2003 that destroyed thousands of homes and left 12 dead.
In 2009, there were three mega-fires in B.C. In 2010, there were four. In 2014, there were five. Last year, there were three, but B.C. experienced the worst wildfire season in a decade with almost 300,000 hectares burned. Fire-fighting costs reached nearly $300-million.
And things are expected to get worse.
A climate change wildfire action draft plan by the B.C. Ministry of Forests predicts that in the near future the size of fires will increase from an average of 7,961 hectares to 19,076 hectares. Fire severity is projected to increase by 40 per cent in the spring and 95 per cent in the summer. The length of the fire season is expected to increase by 30 per cent.
In the face of this growing threat the plan, released in April, concludes that prevention makes more sense than spending ever-increasing amounts on fighting unstoppable mega-fires.
The solution, say fire experts, is to reduce fuel loads in the forests before they explode.
That means more controlled burns and the creation of “fuel breaks” by widening roads or logging strategically around communities.
In 2004, in the wake of the Kelowna disaster, B.C. launched a strategic wildfire prevention initiative to do just that.
But a report last year by B.C.’s Forest Practices Board (FPB) found the program has fallen short, stating that an “investigation found that most communities in B.C. remain vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire.”
The FPB said some good preventive work has been done under the program, but not enough.
“Unfortunately, over the past 10 years, only 10 per cent or less of hazardous forest fuels have been treated. Funding to protect at-risk communities in B.C. by removing interface fuel sources is inadequate,” stated the report.
The FPB called on the government to spend more on wildfire prevention, but didn’t suggest a figure. Perhaps the question should be, how much would it be worth to avoid another disaster like Fort McMurray?