September 10th, 2019

Wildfire management as a concept is entirely unique in the sense that it operates as an emergency response agency but simultaneously must account for forest health and proper ecological stewardship. This is rare combination; you don’t see the Coast Guard accepting marine ecosystem health as one if its responsibilities. The most analogous profession I have been able to identify are physicians, but applied to the health of a landscape as opposed to an individual. Both fields advocate for the proactive approach through little treatments over time, but inevitably must perform reactionary, technical miracles in hopes of evading disaster. Physicians constantly preach for us to eat well, exercise, sleep well, avoid the bad stuff; but inevitably must perform expensive and intrusive angioplasties or bypasses for those of us that do not heed. Wildfire managers may not preach, but do push for proactive burning, fuels management, replanting of non-flammable native species; but increasingly must be reactionary and utilize significant resources to wrangle intensive forest fires. Clearly there are some incongruities with this analogy, with the biggest being: doctors have a clear message to the public and people are free to follow their own individualistic desires, wildfire managers do not have a clear message to the public and people have no idea how at risk they are to losing everything.

Raise the Minimum

On March 25, 1911, a fire in a New York City garment factory broke out due to an unextinguished cigarette in a fabric waste bin. At the time there was little legislation surrounding workplace- and fire-safety and as a result, the factory was loaded with flammable fabric (fuel) and the few possibilities for egress were locked or inadequate, there were no alarms or extinguishers, and no plan. 146 people perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory because they were unable to escape the conflagration, the only fire escape buckled under the weight of so many people and many fell to their deaths.  Without legislation, the factory’s management had been free to follow minimal codes and bylaws such as reduced fire escapes, excessive flammable material, and no coordinated safety plan for the workers to follow. The response to the travesty was sweeping legislation aimed at ensuring such an industrial catastrophe could not reoccur. With momentum from the incident, the State of New York passed sixty laws designated to standardize the practice of building ingress and egress, the use of fire sprinklers, alarms, and extinguishers, and fireproofing requirements; these laws radiated to other states and the American Society of Safety Professionals was instituted.  In a wildfire context, we have reached our Triangle Shirtwaist Factory moment, but we are missing the window to use the momentum. 

1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire exit that failed due to an overload of traffic. This occurred 100 ft above the sidewalk. Source: Americana

In 2018, California experienced its first Triangle moment as the year-long season brought 103 wildfire caused deaths, over $3.5 billion in costs, and the destruction of approximately 23,000 structures.  With 1 in 4 Californians living in high fire risk environments, these numbers can be expected to rise. The 2018 season created massive momentum and anxiety for everyone, however in California the focus has been on the utility companies to enact change and this completely deviates from the ability to change our wildfire fate. My birth State needs to look to history to identify salvation pathways to avoid the continuation of the downward, crisis spiral.

An exit route in Paradise, CA where 85 people perished. Roads had previously been narrowed for commercial purposes. Source: The Mercury News

 Just as in 1911, when sprinklers, alarms, extinguishers, and knowledge about emergency exits and flammable material existed in society, people died in mass because legislation did not exist to ensure their use. As stated in many of my interviews, “people, and specifically those who aim to enhance a bottom line such as developers or builders, will always follow minimum code” or put another way, “without legislation, politics and [economic] return will reign”. The technologies and knowledge about how to protect communities from wildfires exists today, wildfire management agencies are literally screaming their objectives for community protection. It just so happens that those same objectives are remarkably similar to the ones set after the outcome of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: reduce flammable fuels, identify adequate areas for ingress (of firefighters) and egress (for civilians), use sprinklers and alarm technologies, and have a coordinated safety plan that everyone can understand.  Today highly impactful wildfire incidents in the U.S and Canada have provided momentum and political pressures to enact change, this desire for change however tries to achieve the objective through indirect methods.

While California is busy scrambling to figure out the absolute mess it has created for itself and media outlets ascribe blame to soulless utilities, other governments such as Alberta and British Columbia have begun down other pathways. But first, a brief description for why AB and BC are concerned about wildfires: For British Columbia, back-to-back record breaking seasons in 2017 and 2018 burned over 1.2 million hectares (approx 3 million acres) and 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres), cost $650 million and $615 million, and evacuated a cumulative 71,000 people. For Alberta: in 2016 the Horse River Fire lead to the death of two people (but had the potential for significantly more), destroyed 2400 buildings, and cost about $10 billion. This 2019 wildfire season has been a record breaking year for Alberta as over 800,000 ha (2 million acres) have burned, lead to the evacuation of 10,000 people in May alone, and severed a key economic railway that supports northern communities and economic activities:

Destruction to the only railway that connects north and south Canada. Economic impacts unknown

As a result, both Alberta and British Columbia are especially concerned about the wildfire risk. Interest and anxiety persists at all levels: individual homeowners, communities, industry, wildfire experts, and politicians. This interest has weight and is leading to action; budgets for FireSmart (the national program for reducing threats to the wildland-urban interface) are booming, and BC has altered its mandates to place a significantly higher emphasis on wildfire prevention. These steps are crucial in their own ways, but their abilities for implementing change are extremely limited without legislative mandates. 

When it comes to protecting communities in Canada, FireSmart is the national program initiated to distribute knowledge and criteria for preventing a wildfire from burning subdivisions and individual properties. There are a myriad of nuances and complications that challenge the successful and widespread implementation of this criteria, but FireSmart is the body behind the standards. I met with the national coordinator as well as the provincial team (Alberta) responsible for the 7 disciplines of FireSmart: emergency management planning, vegetation management, education, development, legislation, interagency cooperation, and local land-use planning. I could really go on and on about FireSmart, its successes, failures, and areas for improvement, but overall the program is an amazing one with a virtuous mission. It seeks to educate the public about wildfire risks, the need for homeowners to reduce the susceptibility of their homes to direct flames as well as embers, facilitates large-scale vegetation management to protect community and industry values, helps provide training to structural firefighters on the challenges of wildfires, participates in schools to boost awareness, and overall goes above and beyond to try and get people to pay attention and protect themselves. FireSmart is not the problem, getting other entities to follow through on FireSmart objectives is the problem. The program is reliant on buy-in from individuals, municipalities, industry, legislators, and developers to adopt a “wildfire lens” to produce effective, meaningful action. In its quest to protect human life and property, the greatest hurdle for FireSmart is human will. 

Returning back to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the absence of human will paved the way for the tragedy as well. Because legislation did not require alarms, extinguishers, or sprinklers, it would have required additional will for the factory to provide those. Instead they diverted and followed the minimum. The City of New York exemplified poor willpower when they permitted the factory to only build one fire exit, even though they had advised more be built. Willpower would have been required to clear the floors of the scraps and rolls of flammable fabric that covered the factory, but instead they sat and accumulated. Reliance on willpower contributed to the death of these 146 people. In an investigation following the incident, NYC identified over 200 other factories that had remarkably similar conditions. How many communities look like Paradise, CA?

The Factory, to me, represents hundreds of communities in the U.S, Canada, and probably elsewhere. To date, we have built, lived, and operated in wildfire environments and have taken into account NONE of the implications. Our homes and businesses are surrounded by flammable vegetation (even more flammable than fabric in some cases), and we lack the will power to clean it up, and so it accumulates. We allow many of drive-ways and roads (ingress for firefighters and egress for everyone else) to become narrow for aesthetic or commercial reasons, and we don’t review and spread awareness about safety plans or instill technologies to aid us. We permit development to occur without concern for natural hazard, in many cases homes are built with flammable materials. In the aftermath of the Horse River Fire in Alberta and also the Tubbs Fire in California, homes are rebuilt in the same locations with the same materials that lead to their combustion. The survivors of 1911 would be ashamed of us because we still hold onto hope that human willpower can shift. When will we learn to enact meaningful legislation to remove the willpower element, and get on with change? How many more communities need to be incinerated? It may be time to stop looking at the utility companies, or questioning what tactics wildfire agencies could have used. It is time to look at our government leaders - from homeowner associations to federal bodies - and ask for an elevation of the minimum for community protection.

Thanks for reading, here’s a Grizzly Bear:


“Fire has to be used to be understood, and understood to be used wisely” - Stephen Pyne

Provincial Differences

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.

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