• Smokey forest fire

    Photo: Joanne Francis

When it comes to fighting wildfires, decisions need to be made quickly.

It takes time for crews to get to the trucks or helicopters or planes. It takes time for those vehicles to get to the fire itself — especially if it’s in a remote location. In those cases, fire management agencies like to make that determination within three minutes of learning of the fire. “In extreme conditions, you have a window of 15 minutes to put that fire out, otherwise it’s like spitting on a campfire,” says wildfire expert Mike Flannigan, a professor in the department of renewable resources at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. “If it’s close to a town, it takes half a second to say, ‘that’s an unwanted fire and we’re going to send crews to put it out.’” The infographic below shows tools that fire management agencies use to do just that.

But not all decisions are so simple. While different fire management agencies have different strategies, each determination starts with a fire being called in, whether by the public, by staff at fire lookout towers, by airlines flying routes across the country or by infrared drones. Once the fire has been reported, the agency looks at the fire weather forecast and runs a fire growth model to determine where the fire will spread if no action is taken. Using these models, agencies have a pretty good idea of where a fire will spread and how intense it will be. If there are no “values” — like communities, mines, powerlines — the decision might be “we’re just going to watch it,” says Flannigan. These fires are known as “BOBs” — “being observed.”

Canadian attitudes to fire have shifted over the years. While the goal used to be largely to put fires out, “many fire management agencies are trying to allow fire on the landscape when and where possible,” says Flannigan. “You might say, ‘woah, woah, woah — fire is beneficial?’ Absolutely! Fire is a natural part of our boreal forest, almost all our forest. It kills insects, disease. It’s [part of] the cycle of life.” Recently burned areas are also unlikely to burn again for 15 to 20 years, or longer. “And if they do reburn,” adds Flannigan, “they’re often at lower intensity and easier to put out.”

Last year was a relatively quiet year for wildfires in Canada. But with climate change leading to rising average temperatures, we’re likely to see more fire on average each year. Higher temperatures mean longer fire seasons, more lightning-caused fires and drier fuels. “Various agencies have had policies to try and suppress, extinguish all fire. It hasn’t worked,” says Flannigan. “Our area burned has doubled since the 1970s. And it’s going to continue to increase as we continue to warm. So we have to learn to live with fire and smoke.”

Illustration: Kat Barqueiro

For more on Canadian wildfires, and how to manage them, read a Q&A with Mike Flannigan here.