As extreme heat events intensify in Canada, efforts are under way to better manage and respond to wildfires across the country.
Canada’s wildfire season got off to a slow start this year but with rising temperatures coupled with dry conditions, wildfire activity has picked up in the west, including British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
“We are preparing for the potential of significant fires in the next two to four weeks as we trend into August,” said Cliff Chapman, director of provincial operations for the B.C. Wildfire Service.
Last year, the country saw a record-setting heat wave and an early start to the wildfire season with high intensity and overall numbers, particularly in B.C., where a provincial state of emergency was declared in July.
With the effects of climate change seen worldwide, fire experts say there is greater urgency to step up advanced planning.
“We’re all working to adjust what preparation looks like in anticipation of fire season and then obviously also looking at our response tactics,” said Chapman.
When it comes to predicting fires, the B.C. Wildfire Service is using artificial intelligence and data from multiple sources as well as collaborating with space agencies.
Chapman said there is room to continue to grow when it comes to potential growth modelling — that shows how widespread and intense a wildfire can fire get — and that “allows us to put the right people in the right place for the aggressive initial attack.”
There is also greater collaboration and more resources involved.
The Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA) has expanded its firefighting capacity with its tribal council partners by adding five crews in northern communities and extending some of those crews into the fall.
“This year, the SPSA’s aircraft were operational earlier in the season to address potential for southern grass fires and will be extended later in the fall for the same reason,” said Steve Roberts, vice-president of operations for the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency.
The province is also working with Indigenous leadership to manage evacuations more collaboratively, Roberts told Global News in an email.
Other recent improvements include more weather reporting capacity in southern Saskatchewan and the launch of an interactive provincial fire ban map this year to make it easier for the public to gather information about current fire bans across the province.
Because resourcing remains a challenge not just in Canada but around the globe, Chapman said over the last few years, there has been a “national shift” from heavily relying on resources from other countries, such as the United States, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
The Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System has been in development since 1968 but the Canadian Forest Service has begun using new technology, including weather stations and remote sensing.
CFFDRS modelling helps predict the probability of fires igniting and their potential growth and intensity based on current weather conditions to help fire management agencies better prepare to respond in time.
“We are slowly trying to develop and improve upon the models that they use on a daily basis,” said Chelene Hanes, a physical scientist with the Canadian Forest Service.
Using those models, provincial fire managers are now trying to focus on longer time periods, such as 10 days, said Hanes. Whereas in the past, they were primarily concerned with today and tomorrow, she added.
For the 2022 wildfire season, the federal government has earmarked $516 million to help provinces with training firefighters, buying equipment and developing a new monitoring satellite system.
The additional money will help advance modelling at a quicker pace, said Hanes.
“We’re hoping by 2025 to start rolling out some of these new models.”
On Monday, Federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair announced that Ottawa is providing $870 million in advance payments to British Columbia to help it rebuild and recover from natural disasters.
Room for improvement
Canada’s wildfire season typically starts in April, hits its peak in July and ends in October.
Each year, planning for the next wildfire season starts soon after the end of the last one, said David Martell, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Forestry and Conservation.
Government-commissioned “after action reports,” written by external third parties, looking at significant incidents during a fire season help identify what worked and what didn’t, which can then inform decision making for the next season, he said.
Alberta Wildfire said it is constantly evaluating wildfire management practices and procedures to see where improvements can be made to prevention and detection.
“The implementation of new technology helps the department continue to meet its mandate while managing rising costs,” said Mackenzie Blyth, a spokesperson for Alberta’s Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Economic Development.
Over time, policies and management practices have evolved, but there is still a need to invest more and focus on fire-smarting landscapes, homes and cottages, said Martell.
“We’re doing better, but we’re certainly not doing well enough,” he said.
In May 2022, the B.C. government announced that it was extending its Alert Ready system beyond tsunami warnings and Amber Alerts to include imminent threats from floods and wildfires.
“Expanding the use of this tool has the potential to save lives and ensure B.C. is better able to respond to emergencies, as we see the severity and risks associated with emergency management hazards grow in our province,” according to the Emergency Management BC.
The EMBC has also been working to modernize the province’s evacuee support services, including the development of an Evacuee Registration and Assistance (ERA) tool, to speed up processes and better meet the immediate needs of evacuees, such as food, shelter and clothing.
At the end of the day, to manage wildfires effectively there needs to be a collective effort across the country involving local governments, First Nations communities and other stakeholders, said Chapman.
“The reality is (wildfires) are going to be here and they’re going to be here more frequently,”
“We cannot do it alone.”