It’s early morning in July and firefighters in B.C. are trying to make sure fire doesn’t spread into the treetops. The work is gruelling. But despite it all, the crews are persevering.
“You’re pushing the limits of what humans can do in this job,” said BC Wildfire Service squad boss, Aws Al-Mubarak.
Global News was given rare access to the control line at the Rossmoore Lake Wildfire in British Columbia at the end of July.
During our time, Al-Mubarak explained how crews are tackling the fire. Using small hand torches, they burn surface fuels like dried grasses or branches on the ground “because what is black doesn’t burn again.”
It’s a fire suppression tool often referred to as a “planned ignition.”
“These wildfires aren’t just affecting our forests. They’re affecting families and communities,” said Adam Buchanan, a BC Wildfire Service member and a former fire investigator. “It’s just becoming a part of our lives here in British Columbia and really across the world.”
This year, the wildfire season is the most serious firefight Canada has ever faced.
Nationally, more than 18 million hectares have been consumed by flames, and that figure is growing every day.
More than 230,000 people have been evacuated, the military has been deployed to certain areas, and over 4,300 international firefighters have been brought in to help.
“This has been unprecedented. But unfortunately, it’s what fire scientists and climatologists have predicted is going to happen,” said fire ecologist Robert Gray.
He said climate change is rewriting the length and severity of fire seasons.
“There was hope that this wouldn’t happen for another decade or so, but it’s happening now, which means that we’ll likely see worse than this in the future,” Gray told Global News’s The New Reality.
Experts say human negligence, cluttered forests and hot and dry weather can be contributing factors.
Yet according to the federal government, lightning strikes cause nearly half of all wildland fires in Canada. This year in BC, the fire service said approximately 71 per cent have been sparked by lightning.
“Climate change is resulting in more lightning. So, for every one degree Celsius increase in … global mean temperature, the research shows about a 12 per cent increase in lightning,” Gray told Global News.
Fighting fire with fire
Global warming will only intensify the fire seasons of the future. In order to tackle the problem, experts say we need to change our approach to fire management.
Instead of viewing all fire as bad, we need to be using it in a deliberate and strategic way.
“We need to be doing much more prescribed burning … strategically doing it around communities,” said Gray, who is also certified by the Association for Fire Ecology.
When managed properly, prescribed fire can be a powerful tool. The goal is to eliminate organic materials on the ground that can be sources of fuel. It also has positive benefits such as promoting healthy forests and boosting wildlife habits.
Gray said these burns can act like “fences to fire movement.”
“If you have a lot of fences on the landscape, … it buys time for the weather to change. It buys time for suppression resources to get there,” he said, adding that “the historic landscape was full of these fences and most of them were created by Indigenous people using cultural fire.”
Cultural burning is an Indigenous practice using controlled fire. It holds different meanings for different communities.
“Each Nation has different cultural values, so cultural burning is done to achieve those specific cultural objectives. However, there are a lot of similarities — like burning for berries, for example,” said Amy Cardinal Christianson, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service.
Cardinal Christianson took Global News on a tour of her property near Rocky House Mountain, Alta., to a spot where she did a cultural burn in the spring. Her land was lush, filled with tall billowing trees, bright green grasses and patches of raspberries.
“For cultural fire, it’s much more of an activity that’s based on a long-term relationship with the land,” she explained.
There are many advantages to the practice. One of which is land stewardship, which can also protect people.
Indigenous communities are often hit hardest by wildfires in this country.
“Indigenous communities have been impacted by 42 per cent of wildfire evacuation events. So, it’s a huge disproportional impact on our communities compared to other Canadians,” said Cardinal Christianson, who is currently on secondment to Parks Canada as an Indigenous fire specialist.
Her research has found that between 1980 and 2021, some Indigenous communities were forced to evacuate “up to seven times during that period.”
Cardinal Christianson said that allowing communities to restore their cultural burning practices is a simple solution to reducing risk. But because of historical and colonial policies and laws, there are barriers.
The hope now is that governments in Canada will listen.
This summer the federal government announced funding to train 1,000 wildland firefighters over five years. But experts have said that’s not enough. More resources need to be put toward fire mitigation practices like prescribed and cultural burnings.
“The U.S. does about 150,000 prescribed burns a year across multiple agencies. Even private people burn. About 10 million acres a year burnt… and they’re still in the deficit. So, that’s the scale that we need to be at,” Gray told Global’s The New Reality.
“I think a very natural partner for that is Indigenous nations, who already have that expertise and knowledge in their territories,” Cardinal Christianson said.
Back at the Rossmoore Lake Wildfire, just south of Kamloops, firefighters are making their way to the eastern side.
At the time Global News meets with them, they have been in the second week of wrestling the flames, and danger is all around.
A tree is leaning dangerously over the path the crew needs to take. So, squad boss Simón Bermudez cuts it down.
“Life and safety, always number one. Otherwise, what’s the point?” he said moments after removing the tree with a large chainsaw.
At least four firefighters have died on duty this fire season. The first was killed by a falling tree.
“It brings to the forefront the reality of what’s going on,” Bermudez said. “Everybody feels it. You know, a red shirt is a red shirt.”
As fires still burn across the country, some crews will continue working until the snow falls.
In the meantime, those on the fireline are working tirelessly.
The goal, for now, is to find solutions to minimize the destruction and save lives.
“It’s been a long summer and there are moments where I’m tired and I just want it to be winter again,” Buchanan said. “But … we’ll just keep putting our head down … until we can take a breath of fresh air.”