“Fire has to be used to be understood, and understood to be used wisely” - Stephen Pyne
Deep within Banff National Park, we sat on the ridge line watching a small column of smoke start to churn and twist. The Incident Commander peering through their camera lens to capture the progression of their prescribed burn. Then there was a dull drone of a fixed-wing aircraft overhead, set apart from the sounds of the helicopter -the aerial weedwacker- that was supposed to be the only permitted aircraft in the area. The IC heard the noise too and looked up as a double-propped “bird dog” turned from west to north, circling the burn. “Those guys shouldn’t be here, I told them to stay out”, the IC exclaimed reaching for the radio to contact dispatch. “They’re always trying to big brother us”.
To me, this moment reflected a significant dynamic that is prevalent in Canada and the U.S (to a lesser degree). In Canada, administrative boundaries correspond to wildfire directives. The provinces all operate under their own mandates and policies, and the only federal land tenure exists in the form of national parks. These mandates take a wide range: Parks Canada on one end, adopts an ecological perspective. They have minimal human values within their boundaries so in turn may be able to focus their attention on how fire is benefiting a landscape. This takes the form of a more active prescribed burn program and a lesser emphasis on absolute suppression. Alberta, to me, represents the other end of the spectrum. With so many human values (infrastructure and homes) along with economic interests (timber supply, oil fields, utilities, etc) within forested environments, the province adopts a staunch full-suppression stance. Every new fire start in Alberta will get a helicopter and an air tanker automatically assigned when reported. Their intention is to put the fire out before 10AM the next day (this mentality was created and then abandoned in the U.S). Alberta hits hard and fast so as to limit fires to (ideally) no more than 1.2 ha size fires. From my observation, this is a highly resource-intensive and costly directive, but Alberta’s stands by this approach as they believe it falls within their priorities of protecting human and infrastructural values in the most risk averse manner. Saskatchewan represents a middle ground, with so much undeveloped landscape they adopted an “appropriate response”. This allows them to observe the fire and make a determination on whether to action the fire or not. From what I’ve gathered about British Columbia, they seem to be somewhere in between Alberta and Saskatchewan in terms of their aggressiveness versus wait-and-see mentality, but I am headed there next to get a better picture.
The interprovincial differences in Canada is an interesting facet that I hadn’t really anticipated. In the States, we have various agencies as well - federal, state, and private management- but there is a greater degree of policy transfusion when it comes to wildfires. Unless it’s a national park, the management approach seems fairly consistent- with an anticipated threat to life, property, or another value: put it out, and then maybe consider opportunities to back off and observe. In Canada, the jurisdictional lines are much more distinct - firefighting resources are commonly sent across borders, but policies and to some degree, knowledge*, appears to remain within their defined boundaries.
A Wildfire Perspective on Banff, Implications for Destination Recreation Towns:
We have all seen the picturesque photographs of the hamlet of Banff and the dramatic, granite behemoths that surround it. Both in winter and summer, social-media inspired tourism pulsates up and down Banff Ave, Sulphur Mountain, and the greater Bow Valley. The stable population of Banff sits around 1900 people, but the town has capacity for more than 10000 people as it supports approximately 6000 hotel rooms. Just as Banff is a hotspot for vacationers, it is also a potential hotspot for wildfires.
In addition to being surrounded by striking mountains, Banff is also surrounded by an ecosystem that is designed to burn every 50 years, but has not witnessed fire in 200 years. Without the presence of fire or intensive fuels management (which the Town of Banff and Parks Canada engage in), these fuels can accumulate, become more susceptible to bug infestations, and dry out. This situation is not novel in any sense, histories of fire exclusion and fire suppression have caused fuel loads and fire risk to spike literally everywhere; however the interesting twist about Banff (and I suspect in other destination towns) is that there is a direct incentive to do not change the existing landscape. In Banff, the municipal fire chief and the surrounding land managers at Parks Canada are fully aware of the danger and through their paramount remedial efforts to reduce the wildfire risk to the community, they are challenged by underlying efforts to conserve aesthetics for commercial means.
The steps taken by Banff’s Fire Department and surrounding National Park are noteworthy because they are the most progressive attempts to reduce fire risk on a landscape level that I have witnessed. Large fuel breaks through logging aimed to protect the community from potential encroaching wildfires, as well as significant efforts to reduce the flammability of the town’s public spaces are both necessary steps to protection that I have observed little elsewhere. Through the use of contract crews within the town, 70-80 hectares of hazardous fuel have been treated, thus helping to ensure community resiliency in the event of an extreme conflagration. Towns such as Colorado Springs, Woodland Park, Topanga, and numerous others across the American West could learn a great deal about proactive fuels mitigation within and surrounding town boundaries. However, -back to aesthetics - even with significant fuels management at the landscape level, if no steps are taken to improve homeowners properties than the risk of losing homes to wildfires remains relatively high. Thus in towns such as Banff where development bylaws stipulate that homes should be consistent with the landscape (which is flammable), then the homes themselves are susceptible. The image pushed by developers and town planners everywhere of wood-paneled homes tucked within thick stands of pine along narrow, overgrown streets may seem pleasing to tourists, but a wildfire nightmare.
Some thing that may not be known to the average homeowner is that some trees are more flammable than other (profound, I know). Most conifers (specifically their needles and twigs i.e fine fuels) are susceptible to drought and prolonged solar radiation thus increasing their probability of ignition and forming a crown fire. Most deciduous trees (such as aspen) are more proficient at maintaining their moisture and therefore may sometimes serve as efficient firebreaks. For someone that lives in a fire-prone landscape, which type of tree would you prefer to have in close proximity to your home and surplus of things you deem valuables? For safety purposes it makes more sense to have the latter. To aid with this, the municipal fire department of Banff put forward an extremely progressive initiative to help homeowners reduce their fire risk by replacing their conifers with deciduous aspen. The city planners, in return, attempted to put roadblocks in to prevent this initiative as they felt it undermined the community’s ability to give tourists the Banff experience.
As trivial as the tree replacement example may be, it hints to a larger issue surrounding community involvement in wildfire preparedness: a lack of recognition of the problem combined with a reluctance to making meaningful steps to mitigate the issue. There appears to be a growing level of frustration among land managers to instigate change for communities to take steps to protect themselves. Large, catastrophic events such as the Horse River Fire (or the Camp Fire in the U.S) have prompted short-spurted change, but eventually momentum dwindles. Fears dissipate and may be replaced by not-in-my-backyard mentalities. A key aspect of this dynamic is that municipal governments have never been responsible for wildfire preparedness, and so they may either fail to acknowledge their responsibility or aspire to enact change but lack the knowledge to make insightful decisions.
These elements, I believe, are accentuated in destination towns such as Banff, Malibu, Truckee, or Gatlinburg. Not only do these towns face the acknowledgment and expertise threshold faced by towns everywhere,they also have a perceived economic incentive to maintain their potentially dangerous aesthetic. For example, in the aftermath of the Camp Fire, it came out that the town of Paradise had knowingly narrowed their main evacuation route by two lanes as they believed it would boost commerce to the downtown area. If the landscapes these towns are in attracts tourism and promotes business, how does one kill the golden goose and alter the landscape to become more fire resilient? The answer may be that it is only perception and altering conifer trees to deciduous will have absolutely zero impact on tourism rates. But with all environmental issues, changing perceptions remains the challenge.