The wildfires that have swept Canada this summer have become the largest in modern history. The scale has forced an international response and a re-evaluation of how the world manages wildfires. Today, we talk to firefighters on the front lines about the enormity of their challenge, and to climate columnist David Wallace-Wells about how, thanks to climate change, the very nature of the danger from wildfires is shifting.
It’s Friday, August 4.
- ben oakleaf
My name is Ben Oakleaf. I’m 43 years old. I’m the assistant base manager with the Boise BLM Smokejumpers. I’ve been in wildland fires since 2000.
- cole whelan
My name is Cole Whelan. I’m 32, and I live in Boise, Idaho. I’m a senior smokejumper for Boise Bureau of Land Management. So we’re an initial attack resource that responds to usually remote lightning fires by airplane and parachute.
- ash morrow
My name’s Ash Morrow. I’m a fire aviation specialist with the New South Wales rural fire service based here in Sydney.
- jake murry
So I’m Jake Murry I work with the Alaska Smokejumpers. I’m 31 years old. I started fire when I was 19, right out of high school and currently on a wildfire right now.
- cole whelan
We started hearing about Canada. In June, we went up there for a total of 19 days, and there was probably another 30 smokejumpers from the other bases that were up there during my time as well.
- ben oakleaf
So I was there for 14 operational periods.
- jake murry
Yeah, they need all hands on deck, really. There was a lot of international aid. And I think there’s like French and South African.
- ash morrow
When we got to Edmonton, we were briefed on our individual assignments. From there, we were kitted out with all the equipment we needed and basically began working as soon as we got there.
- cole whelan
We all kind of have our duties and our roles. There’s people that operate chainsaws, and there’s other people that man the pump and hose and then hand tools. And then another thing in Canada, they have a lot of access to helicopters and air resources because a lot of that stuff is pretty remote.
- ash morrow
It did look quite confronting when we arrived to our fire. You’re talking enormous plumes of smoke. You can see flames right up through the air. And usually, if you can see flame from the air when you’re flying, it means it’s pretty intense on the ground. The fire itself from flying where we were, you could nearly go as far as the eye can see.
- ben oakleaf
One of the surprising things is how vast British Columbia is.
- ash morrow
Just fire or burnt country right across the landscape.
- jake murry
You say anywhere from 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM, 6:00 PM is kind of when the fire would pick up and kind of stand up and move.
- cole whelan
It’s so dry and windy that it’s burning the grass right over a swamp. The grass is burning right on top of the water, which is pretty wild to see.
- jake murry
I ended up jumping a fire that went pretty big. So I spent like 11 days on one fire, and it was kind of a chaos. It was really volatile, burning really quick. And the fire kept throwing spots, hot embers into unburned fuels.
And we were just running around trying to contain them all. It was right along the Alaska Canadian Highway. So that was the main resource we were trying to protect just because it’s kind of bloodline for northern Canada and up to Alaska.
And yeah, we were just pulling long shifts, 20-hour shifts, 18-hour shifts, 17-hour shifts, back to 20 trying to contain it. And I think it was on day 10, we finally got all the way around the fire. And the line held, which is really nice because there was a lot of chaotic days where it was so short-staffed.
We were just kind of barely holding onto it, just keeping it at ease.
- ben oakleaf
It’s such a vast area up there. And they’re so big, and they’re growing at such a rate. At that point, sometimes it’s an even lost cause, and then you’re going to need what we call a season-ending event and that’s going to require the turn of the season — rain and snow — to actually put it out.
- jake murry
With how much activity that they had up there, they could have had every firefighter in the world up there, and it still wouldn’t have been enough to help just with how much activity and how much fire is burning up there right now.
So David, the last time you and I spoke, it was about the smoke that was covering huge parts of the United States. At the time, New York City was this kind of angry orange color. And of course, it had come from forest fires in Canada, which continue today to burn out of control.
So after that show, my colleagues, Carlos Prieto and Asthaa Chaturvedi, started calling firefighters who were fighting fires in Canada. And I wanted to ask you the same question my colleagues put to these firefighters, which is, how do we finally put these fires out?
Well, the truth is we’ve never been able to put fires like this out, ever, even in California where we have the most advanced wildland firefighting system anywhere in the world. Even there when a fire is burning totally out of control, firefighters just can’t get in the way of that. They can’t extinguish those fires at all.
The flames themselves are moving too fast. The fires are burning too hot. When you get into a situation like that, really, the best that firefighters can do is to try to work on the margins to direct the path of the fire away from human settlements and to wait for the winds to change.
And in British Columbia, which is the kind of equivalent state of California in Canada, they have less than one tenth the budget of Cal Fire.
And they’re got a fraction of the firefighters. So even in the place in the world where we can do the best, we can’t manage truly disastrous fires. We can’t extinguish them. We certainly can’t do that in Canada, where the resources are much, much smaller.
And what’s the size of the fire at this point there in Canada?
So in total, we’ve seen across Canada something like 30 million acres burn.
30 million acres.
It’s unbelievably large. It’s about three times as much land as has burned in the worst American fire seasons of the last 50 years.
And we still have a few months of fire season ahead of us, which means we may well get to 40 million or even 50 million by the time the year is over. And you already have a lot of Canadian fire scientists saying the climate has changed sufficiently that we can’t even really expect that the rainy season will totally bring this to an end. So we don’t know when these fires are really going to go out. But already, they are literally off the charts. They are chart-redefining.
Wow, the scale of it is just mind blowing. So if you can’t put them out if, they’re wild and completely out of control as they are, I guess the question is, what can you do? Like, what’s the strategy?
Well, if you put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s trying to allocate scarce resources to deal with an overwhelming threat, you prioritize what you’re going to defend. And that’s basically what the Canadians have done. It’s also what we’ve done in a lot of places in the US in recent years, which is to say we focus on human lives, make sure that we can save them and protect them.
We focus, secondarily, on homes, towns, make sure that fires don’t destroy whole communities. And then as a third level, we try to focus on protecting human infrastructure — rail lines, power lines, other sorts of things that we don’t want to get destroyed by fire.
But it is really important, I think, to understand in thinking about this challenge just how large and vast and mostly uninhabited most of Canada is and how much of it is really untouched forest. I think it’s 85 percent of Canadians live within 150 miles of the US border, which is the equivalent of 85 percent of Americans living south of Los Angeles and south of Tampa.
And then you have this untouched landscape unto the north. And when you’re talking about allocating scarce resources, it’s obvious that you want to focus on protecting the people where they’re densely populated. And really, as strange as it may sound, as counterintuitive as it may sound, let the rest of the country burn.
Wow. So letting the forest burn is, in fact, the strategy, which is not exactly intuitive as you say. How did we get to this idea of how to manage fire?
Well, it came out of the realization that we took the wrong approach for most of the 20th century, extinguishing fire wherever it crept up. We had this kind of a daredevil response where we’d send in mostly young men into areas, even where we knew the fire was going to burn out of control and try to extinguish it whenever we could. We risked a lot of lives to do that. We suppressed fire really successfully, but it also meant as a result, that because there was less fire, the landscape itself grew more and more flammable over time.
In a natural world untouched by this kind of firefighting, there would be occasional small-scale fires that thinned out dry timber. But if we put out all those fires and those burns don’t happen, the tinder just accumulates larger and larger. And that means that when an ignition finally happens, the fire that results can burn much, much larger, and as a result, much more intensely because there’s just so much more of that fuel on the ground.
But about 30, 40, 50 years ago, there was a sort of a change in perspective on exactly how to approach these challenges. And now, most firefighters almost everywhere in the world take a very different approach. Rather than trying to put out fire wherever it burns, they focus on protecting human life when they can and human communities where they can. And otherwise, they try to cultivate what they call good fire.
Yeah. Good fire is fire that thins out forests that is already ready to burn. As a result, it can allow those forests to regenerate. It’s part of the natural cycle for many of these forests to go through some amount of burning.
And it can also protect against future out-of-control catastrophic fires because once an area of land is burned, it was often thought that it would take a very long time for it to burn again. And in the meantime, that burned area would act as a natural firebreak so that if a future fire broke out a mile down the road, it wouldn’t actually cross that burned-over area. It would stay contained within the boundaries of what had already burned.
And in addition to letting those fires burn to produce that effect, firefighters have also tried to introduce their own good fire through what’s called controlled burning, which is where, given the right weather conditions, you kind of set up an area and light it on fire, knowing that there aren’t going to be high wind days, knowing that you’ve built up particular fire breaks in certain areas so that you know that the fire that will result will be contained.
It’s not foolproof. There have been mistakes made here. And there have been some really quite large fires that emerged from controlled burns. But in general, it’s understood that this has been a healthier approach to forest management and fire policy.
OK. So the idea was to limit the amount of fuel for a potential wildfire before it started through these controlled burns to kind of lower the chance of an out-of-control fire in the future; and, also, that once a fire does start, to stop it from burning near towns and cities. So that’s what the firefighters are doing up there right now. They’re protecting people, right? Kind of like a defending army or something.
Yeah. And I think they’ve done a relatively good job of that, given how much of Canada is burning. We’ve seen a few fatalities, but it’s not been a high number. We haven’t seen whole towns incinerated like we’ve seen in previous fire seasons in Canada or the US.
And we’ve seen a massive amount of land burn, and that’s sort of reflective of the strategy. So according to the lessons that we thought we learned over the last 30, 40 years, things are basically going according to plan here.
The problem is, these fires in Canada are showing us that there are unforeseen costs to that strategy. And the lessons that we thought we learned over those previous generations simply don’t apply to the climate reality as it exists today. And managing fire is becoming a much riskier proposition.
We’ll be right back.
OK. So David, walk me through the way that climate change is scrambling our thinking about fires.
Well, the most basic level is just that because there is more heat and often less moisture, forests in much of the world are becoming more flammable. So that means that they are burning more regularly. And when they burn, they often burn more intensely, which is to say they have higher temperatures. You can’t even drop water on some of them from planes that are designed to extinguish them because the water will actually evaporate before it even reaches the fire.
You have it burning so hot that the silica in the soil can turn into glass. And you have this whole new phenomenon of fire weather. We used to use the word fire weather to describe when a fire was likely to start. Now, we use it to describe the fact that whole weather systems are produced by the convective heat produced by fires. And so you have —
— fire tornadoes, fire lightning storms. You have these particular kinds of clouds, which can rise all the way up into the stratosphere, producing new fire conditions over much larger areas. So we’re living under a completely different set of climate conditions in terms of the fires that start, when they start, and how far they can burn, and then also the character and quality of the fire when they are burning.
OK, so fire tornadoes, huge fire clouds. What other new phenomenon are we seeing now?
Well, a lot of stuff is changing. One of the things that scares me most is something that’s often called a zombie fire, where a fire can seem extinguished on the surface, especially as the fall goes into winter, but it actually burns in the soil and springs up again in the spring.
So kind of sneak attack.
Exactly. And this has happened a lot in Siberia. It’s happened in the American West, too. And we don’t really know how much more common that’s going to be.
I mean, a zombie fire, by definition, scary. Undead fires.
And we’re also seeing some other concerning phenomenon. So we used to believe that once a area had burned, it would take quite a long time for it to recover sufficiently to burn again. It might be a 10-year horizon. It might be a 30-year horizon.
But now we’re seeing increasingly in certain areas, even just a few years after the previous bad fire, a new fire coming in and burning once more. So we used to feel, for all of its horror and tragedy, that a massive wildfire at least protected that land for basically a generation. And now it seems much, much less safe to count on that generational buffer.
So how does all of this change the calculus on fire management?
Well, on a practical level, it means that you can’t do controlled burns as aggressively as you might have wanted to do. The number of days in which conditions are comfortable for burning are many fewer. And the risks of things getting out of control are higher.
It’s also the case that letting a natural fire continue to burn runs a risk of it growing much larger and more intense than would have been the case a generation ago, because it’s going to just find more fuel on the landscape than was the case back then. And the impact of that is twofold. And I think these are things that we’ve only just started to really reckon with.
The first is about smoke. We’ve only started to think about the public health risks of wildfire smoke over the last few years. And it’s one thing to say what we’re trying to do is to protect human life when we define human life as the person standing in the path of fire, and think what can we do to protect that person? And it’s another thing to think, we need to do what we can to protect human life when the human lives that we’re trying to protect are the many millions of people living hundreds of miles away who may breathe in that smoke.
In the first instance, it’s kind of OK to let good fire burn if no one’s in the way. In the second instance, letting more land burn is going to produce more smoke, which is going to ultimately affect more people.
And it’s not just smoke, it’s also carbon because trees, when they burn, release carbon, as reliably as burning a piece of coal does. And the effects there at the global level are not enormous. But in particular bad fire seasons, they can be really, really catastrophic.
In Canada this year, they’re producing two or three times as much emissions as the entire Canadian economy — all of its infrastructure, all of its energy systems, all of its transportation, all of its agriculture, all of its factories, all of its cars. More carbon is being produced by wildfires this year in Canada than all of those other sources combined. So that’s the scale of the carbon problem produced by fires, and we’re just beginning, I think, to even think about it. And we’re very far from getting a policy or cultural hold on it.
I mean, it’s startling, right? I mean, just to repeat so people actually absorb this, the emissions from fires this season in Canada are two or three times as much as the emissions as the entire Canadian economy, which is just like the scale is unimaginable and depressing. So what’s the cost of this let-it-burn strategy globally?
Recent years, there have been estimates that the emissions from wildfires are larger than the national emissions of all countries except China, the United States, and India, which is to say if wildfires were a country, they would be the world’s fourth biggest emitter. And it means that if you’re casting your mind forward a generation or two into a world in which we’ve actually done a remarkably rapid job of decarbonization and are not producing very much or any additional carbon emissions, we still may be dealing with future heating, future global warming just from the effects of wildfire continuing to burn at higher and higher levels and producing more and more carbon.
So the costs of not putting out these fires — you know, doing the good burn thing — is really starting to add up. What options do we actually have when we think about forest fire management and how we need to change it?
Unfortunately, I don’t think there are great options out there. People talk about the possibility of logging to reduce the fuel load. But of course, logging produces carbon because every time you cut down a tree, it releases that carbon. There are people who want to thin out the forests. But the effort it would take to actually go through these vast landscapes and clear brush is just far beyond anything that we are capable of committing to at this point in a place like the US or Canada and really anywhere in the world. We may want to try cultivating different kinds of regrowth in areas where trees have already burned. But the truth is we’ve proven pretty bad at growing things like tree plantations to this point, and so I don’t know how much stock to put into that.
I think most fire scientists would tell you that the things that we’ve been doing over the last 20 or 30 years are still the best options we have. They’re just coming with much higher side effects and secondary costs than we appreciated at the time. We probably want to be doing more controlled burns because if you conduct a genuinely-controlled burn — the fire burns at a lower heat, it produces maybe, in some cases, slightly lower carbon emissions, certainly, less smoke. And you can prevent really out-of-control fires from occurring in the future.
But we’re still going to be dealing with a landscape that is much, much more flammable. And when those ignitions do come, larger areas are going to burn. They’re going to burn more intensely. They’re going to produce more smoke, and they’re going to produce a whole lot of carbon emissions. So even doing a very aggressive forest management approach doesn’t leave us in a safe place when it comes to forest fire. And the more that we know about these secondary costs, the scarier that future may seem.
So basically, pretty thin gruel in terms of options. And as you said, it took decades to come up with our current strategy, so all of this is really going to take time. So what are we facing, then? I mean, what is our medium term actually look like?
Well, I think the short answer is that it’s a future that has a lot more fire in it. And we used to think about fire management in terms of protecting people. And I think we’re going to grow increasingly concerned about the risk from smoke and from carbon emissions. But there isn’t an easy answer to those things, which means we’re going to be living in a quite different relationship with nature than we’ve developed over the past half-century or several centuries, depending on how you want to count.
It used to be tempting for people like me for people worried about the climate to think that, well, if the world really got together, we could get a handle on this problem. If we really invested and focused on decarbonization, we could eliminate carbon emissions and solve global warming. And if we really focused on adaptation measures, we could protect people against what was coming as a result of the stuff we’d already put into the atmosphere to this point. But I think the lesson of the new age of wildfire is that we have much less control over a lot of these forces than we like to tell ourselves.
So one lesson here when thinking about all of this is maybe we can’t manage the natural world like we used to, and especially fires. Like, we used to think we can control them or at least manage them, and now they are controlling us. They have the upper hand.
And that is such a basic promise of the modern age of the last century. That if we chose to, we could control nature. We were more powerful than it, and we could hold it at bay and minimize its threats over time.
Climate change is, unfortunately, undoing a lot of that, making that promise and that expectation much more ragged. And we may end up in a future 50 years from now or 100 years from now where we have gotten a better sense of the lay of the land and can introduce new rules, new patterns, new approaches. But for now, I think we’re going to be living in a kind of a complicated, difficult, in certain ways, dangerous relationship with the natural world as it responds to the changes that we’ve made inevitable in it. And so we’re going to have to develop a whole new set of expectations and a whole new set of approaches to allow us to live in a climate regime we’re just beginning to understand.
David, thank you.
Thank you. [MUSIC PLAYING]
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you should know today — former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty on Thursday to charges that he conspired to remain in office, despite his 2020 election loss. Trump appeared in a courthouse in Washington and stood before a federal magistrate judge who ordered him not to communicate about the case with any witnesses and set the date for the case’s first hearing in front of a trial judge for August 28. It was the third time in four months that Trump stood before a judge on criminal charges, but it was the most momentous. The beginning of, what prosecutors say, should be a reckoning for his many efforts to undermine one of the core tenets of democracy.
Today’s episode was produced by Asthaa Chaturvedi and Carlos Prieto, with help from Will Reid. It was edited by Michael Benoist, fact-checked by Susan Lee, contains original music by Dan Powell and Marion Lozano, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly. Special thanks to Jung-Ho Kim.
“The Daily” is made by Rachel Quester, Lynsea Garrison, Clare Toeniskoetter, Paige Cowett, Michael Simon Johnson, Brad Fisher, Chris Wood, Jessica Cheung, Stella Tan, Alexandra Liang, Lisa Chow, Eric Krupke, Mark Georges, Luke Vanderploeg, MJ Davis Lin, Dan Powell, Sydney Harper, Michael Benoist, Liz O. Baylen, Ashtaa Chaturvedi, Rachelle Bonjour, Diana Nguyen, Marion Lozano, Corey Streppel, Rob Zipco, Elisheba Ittoop, Mujeeb Zadie, Patricia Willens, Rowan Niemisto, Jodi Becker, Rikki Novetsky, John Ketchum, Nina Feldman, Will Reid, Carlos Prieto, Ben Calhoun, Susan Lee, Lexie Diao, Mary Wilson, Alex Stern, Dan Farrell, Sofia Lanman, Shannon Lin, Diane Wong, Devin Taylor, Alisa Moxley, Summer Tamad, and Olivia Natt.
Special Thanks to Sam Dolnick, Paula Szuchman, Lisa Tobin, Larissa Anderson, Julia Simon, Sofia Millen, Mahima Chablani, Des Ibekwe, Elizabeth Davis Maurer, Jeffrey Miranda, Renan Borelli, Maddy Masiello, Isabella Anderson, and Nina lassam.
That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Sabrina Tavernise. See you on Monday.
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