The urgency of wildfires and climate change

Steps we can take to ensure we don’t start a fire

One of the most memorable characters from my childhood is Smokey Bear. Created by the United States Forest Service, the fictional bear dressed like a forest ranger gained international fame through the longest running public service advertising campaign in US history. His slogan, “Remember … Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires!” was changed to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires” in 2001 and this year, as Smokey celebrates his 75th birthday, his message remains as important today as it did in 1944, particularly here in Alberta.

Half of our province is covered in forests, with many of our communities built within or adjacent to forested areas. Alberta’s designated Forest Protection Area runs from north to south and along the entirety of the western British Columbia border. The importance of protecting these forests cannot be overstated. Along with providing habitat for animals, forests serve to protect watersheds, prevent soil erosion, and help to slow down global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide.

Forests are also an important economic driver in our province, employing tens of thousands of people and accounting for billions in revenues. Billions of dollars’ worth of Alberta forest products are exported to markets around the world. Protecting our forests matters.  

So far this year, there have been 608 wildfires in the province with a total of 704,929.85 hectares (1,741,919 acres) burned. While the number of fires is below the current five-year average of 644 wildfires, it is important to note that the average covers the entire forest fire season and this year’s figures are only up to June 15, with three months of the typical fire season remaining. Of particular concern, this year’s figures show the size of the areas affected has increased almost 500 per cent from the average of 146,066.54 hectares (360,938 acres) burned.

Mike Flannigan, a professor of Wildland Fire at the University of Alberta, has said the extended wildfire season (which used to start April 1 and now officially starts on March 1) can be attributed to human-caused climate change. Most scientists and industry experts agree that we are going to see longer fire seasons in coming years, along with higher temperatures and more droughts. A research study by Environment and Climate Change Canada, the results of which were published in the academic journal Earth’s Future earlier this year, found “extreme high temperatures combined with dry conditions increased the likelihood of wildfire ignition and spread.”  

Basically, climate change is increasing the destruction of forests and the destruction of forests is speeding up climate change. The situation is urgent.

Smokey Bear, as it turns out, was a little heavy-handed in assigning individual responsibility to preventing wildfires. While it is true that human activity plays a large part in igniting fires, a good number of wildfires are sparked by lightning strikes, a force of nature that none of us are able to prevent.

Still, we can take some steps to ensure we aren’t personally responsible for setting off a blaze that can quite quickly spread out of control.

First and foremost, check local regulations for any permit requirements or burn bans. Unless you are in a designated campground, you might require a campfire permit and/or the landowner’s permission for an open campfire, cooking fire, or bonfire in or near forested land.

Before you even light your fire, make sure you know the local emergency telephone number in case your fire becomes uncontrollable. The sooner firefighting professionals can get to a blaze that’s out of control, the better chance they have of containing it. 

Burn only natural vegetation or untreated wood products and keep fires at least 50 feet away from structures (buildings, tents, fences) and at least 500 feet away from any forest slash.

Clear the area around your fire of any flammable debris (dead grass, twigs, etc.) and be prepared to extinguish the fire if necessary. At least five gallons of water and a shovel should be nearby.

Don’t have a fire if it’s windy; sparks can fly much farther than we realize. Stay with your fire until it is completely out.

If you smoke, don’t move around while you do it in forested land. Stay in one place while you smoke and then make sure your butt is fully and completely out. Then, put it in your pocket.

Our forests are vital for the survival of a huge number of species, including ours. Forests generate a tremendous amount of economic activity and provide endless opportunities for us to enjoy them recreationally. 

No one individual can ensure that forests are protected for generations to come, but if each of us takes the effort to do our small part, including reducing our carbon footprints, it might at least give them a fighting chance.


Featured Image: We can each take steps to prevent starting a wildfire. | Pixabay

Mimi Williams

Mimi is a writer who first moved to the Alberta Avenue area over 20 years ago. She has participated in a number of revitalization initiatives and continues to promote the Ave as one of the best areas to live, work and play in Edmonton.

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