Wildfires have raged this summer, in Greece, Spain, California, Colorado, Arizona, Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories. There was even a fire on the tundra near Tuktoyaktuk.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent fighting to save communities from wildfires – sometimes to no avail. Hundreds of homes have been lost, especially in Colorado and California.
In the NWT, eight towns and villages were threatened – fully one quarter of all NWT communities. Drought conditions and high temperatures made the fires unusually challenging to contain, but nature seemed to cooperate a bit and operations by professionals to counter them were all carried out effectively.
There are some who grumble that they could do a better job, but for the most part people feel secure in the way fires are being managed and in the competence of those who do it. That was not always the case.
1979 and ‘80 were bad fire years and things worsened in ‘81. The summers were hot and dry – so much so that caribou moss crackled when you walked on it. It was continuously windy and dry, lightning storms roared and spat without giving off moisture – conditions not dissimilar to what we experienced this summer. A number of communities were seriously threatened to the point of evacuation, including Enterprise, Hay River and Fort Smith. Resources were stretched paper thin.
The Caribou Range, the vast area to the east of the Slave River, was burning up and those who hunted caribou were furious that fires were being allowed to destroy the habitat that brought the massive herds feeding to the west, near communities. There was anger among trappers and Aboriginal people that more fires were not being fought. Smoke was everywhere, blinding, stinging and that frayed nerves even more.
Like the fires, the controversy grew to a crescendo with a furor so great it hit the national news. At one point there were three southern television crews flying over NWT fires, providing daily updates. Some of that reporting was about how people were saying what a poor job was being done fighting them.
Many people lost faith in those who were managing the firefighting operations at that time. Criticism was extensive and damning. There were so many fires that there was talk fire managers were having the fires set purposely.
That was only 30 years ago. The cause and nature of fires were still not fully understood and firefighting techniques were still being developed. Weather forecasting and reporting on the extent and nature of storms was not nearly as adept as it is now and lightning recorders had just been introduced. Communications were poor and the uninformed public, with no idea what was going on and no understanding of why, was frustrated.
We have come a long way since. There is still much to learn and faced with climate change we may encounter new challenges, yet we are heading in the right direction.
In hindsight, we owe much to the fire managers at that time, three decades ago, who were doing their best with what they had and in the midst of a series of terribly demanding fire seasons.
Facing the stress and challenges of a particularly demanding job in its worst case scenario, they also had to fend off a vicious, sustained attack of bad public opinion. They had the fullest force of public ire turned against them – and for the most part, wrongly so.
Good came of it all. When the wheel squeaks loud, it gets the grease. The scrutiny fostered change. Complacency in how things were done was shaken up and new, better standards and practices were invoked.
Out of those controversies grew much of the firefighting policy that prevails today. Some fires are left to burn because that is part of a natural, beneficial process. We know now that fires even improve trapping within a few years. Any value that is at risk, from a trapper cabin to a town, is religiously protected if there is but the hint of threat.
But for some of it we have since slipped back to the old, lazy ways. Communities do not have proper evacuation plans. There are no disaster planning exercises to engage and inform. We have been lucky so far, but no matter how good our firefighters and how competent those who manage firefighting operations are, we cannot ignore the prospect of a wildfire threatening our communities.