What can we do about wildfires?
Nature bats first and last. Ecological patterns, fire regimes and natural cycles continue with or without our blessings. It's time to change our mindset and acknowledge North America is a fire ecology. Prescription burns, improved ecological understanding and decision making to allow fires that pose low risk to human settlements are a good start to building our fire resiliency. Developing FireSmart homes and communities can help us to acknowledge and work with nature, but that's only the beginning. We have to re-integrate natural patterns of a diverse and wet landscape that are resistant to and recovery quickly from fire, if we not only want to survive but thrive in a land of fire.
Knowing how we got here and where we are now provides the tools we need to address our current wildfire situation. In fire fighting training there's an emphasis on a closed mindset and an open mindset. Without an open mindset it's hard if not impossible to find solutions to a problem.
A few mindsets to adopt and explore to help create solutions include:
- Work with Nature
- There's too little 'good' fire, too much 'bad' fire and too much combustion overall.
- How do you want to 'eat' your smoke (refering to we can either have small prescription burns to help buffer the bigger wildfires that may come during the wildfire season).
For millenia First Nations managed North America, a land of fire, with fire. "Good Fire" is fire that improves ecology while meeting human needs for food, fodder, fuel and safety. Many Indigenous Firekeepers are still actively burning. It's prudent at this point to support them in their efforts to continue their work and pass on their knowledge.
Intact Ecology & Watersheds
North America before colonial contact was a lush and wet place. Animals like beaver and predator prey relationships created and increased vegetation and bodies of water. Settlement drained much of the continent to make way for agriculture. Now human settlement in dry places is draining lakes, rivers and deep aquafirs for people, agriculture and industry where recharge is difficult and prolonged.
Slowing, Spreading and Sinking water back into our continent is of the highest priority for ecological functionality and increasing fire resiliency.
Local Agriculture as Fire Breaks
The majority of our agriculture is irrigated or taps into sub surface water. Both the plants and the produce are water rich. As former Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson said "Agriculture has been proven to be a valuable buffer in a fire fight."
The added bonus of incentivizing, localizing and strategically placing agriculture in and around human settlements is it increases our food resiliency and sovereignty while providing local jobs. Food also loses nutrition the further it has to travel and can have it's living enzymes and active constituents killed by border control irradiation protocol.
SMART Built Environment
As Stephen Pyne mentions in Facing Fire, North American society learned the hard way about building settlements that burn. After the major fires at the turn of the 20th century building codes were enacted to ensure that when fire hit cities or towns the fire wouldn't spread. As human populations outgrew normal urban centres and moved back into fire ecology, resilient building codes aren't always followed or enforced.
In Canada Fire Smart provides guidelines for home owners and industry to follow to improve their fire resiliency. While their approach is excellent there are some missing elements like using plants that are irrigated, like agriculture as a tool for increasing fire resiliency.
When it comes to home construction using local non-toxic local materials can not only improve the performance of a building (like using straw bales to increase insulation and decrease heating costs) but increase the fire resiliency.
Our Flamable Toxic Life
At the turn of the 20th century much if not all of our possessions and building materials were biodegradable or biocompatible. After the discovery and adoption of oil as a primary resource our lives became laden with petroleum based products. These products almost without exception become toxic when burnt.
The materials within these products which include but are not limited to heavy metals return to our environment in the form of toxic ash, contaminated soils and polluted waters. In turn this toxicity affects people, plants and animals reducing the overall health and functionality of our environment and home.
Remediation of air, water and soil 'spills' is a lengthly, costly and involved process. The majority of the soil needs to be removed and cannot with current conventional methods be remediated and returned to its original site. There are some experiments with using phyto and myco remediation, however funding, expertise and the absence of long term studies restricts the growth of this solution.
Forestry Mimicking Nature
Contrary to some beliefs, the amount of fuel that's built up over the last 120 years in our forests can't just be 'raked up'. Many countries around the world have successfully explored and implemented forestry that mimicks nature in both harvesting as well as how the area that is harvested is left.
Removing or incorprating forestry debris, called slash, improves the overal production of the forest and increases fire resiliency.
Land Design with Nature in Mind
Under the mindset of working with nature, there are a number of approaches to land design that improves not only fire resiliency but also water retention and cycling, soil fertility including water and nutrient holding capacity, total ecological benefit, increased agricutlure or livestock production and overal beauty.
Tools in land design tool box include but are not limited to:
Keyline Design, Permaculture, Agroforestry, Silviculture, Korean Natural Farming, Effective Microorganisms, and others.
Ultimately humans have forgotten that our planet has 4.5 billion years of research and development that informed and created us as a species. Thinking we are seperate from our life support system (ecology) in no way changes that we live because of our environment. The elements that have survived on this planet are like cogs in a machine, one where each cog not only affects those immediately around it but has far reaching implications if changed.
When humans in North America (and across the world) decided to suppress and exclude wildfire we didn't stop fire. We allowed for the trees, shrubs and other fuels to build to record levels.
It's never too late to change and change we must as our wildfire fuel debt has built to where when wildfires are ignited can have major negative consesquences for both humans and the ecology we depend on.
Embracing fire means reworking our story that wildfire is inherently bad.
Embracing fire means returning to and honouring the Indigenous firekeepers who lived well with wildfire.
Embracing fire means taking the opportunity of destructive fire seasons to seriously reflect on not just our relationship with fire but our relationship with the planet that keeps us alive and all the inhabitants on it.
Undertaking this exercise again through a permaculture lens has deepened my understanding of the site conditions and the many opportunities that they represent.
Climate Change Specialist and Professional Planner with the City of Calgary, Alberta, Canada