In a haunting wake-up call, the United States reflects on its own mistakes from 40 years ago, urging Canada to heed the warnings of wildfires that have already started encroaching across its borders. As massive wildfires blaze in provinces to the north, smoke rolls into the US, signaling that this might be Canada’s year to listen to its fires and pivot towards a more proactive approach to fire protection.
One of the glaring errors that the US has realized is the failure to align building and infrastructure development with fire protection responsibilities. The wildland-urban interface (WUI), where human settlements meet the natural environment, has been a major concern, as the agencies responsible for creating these zones are not ultimately accountable for protecting them.
An unforgettable example comes from a tragic event in Pebble Beach, California, where a wildfire consumed multimillion-dollar homes due to an illegal campfire left unattended in an abutting botanical reserve. The authorities failed to prioritize home and human survivability over picturesque designs, and the call to “rebuild” homes with wood-shingled roofs still resonates despite the risks.
Onshore winds carried its flames to wood-shingled roofs approved because they matched nature’s décor. Mission accomplished; homes were now part of the flora fueling the nightmare in front of us.
Australia’s Experience in WUI
Drawing inspiration from Australia’s approach, the US advises Canada to adopt a national code for “bushfire-prone” areas, mandating building materials and construction methods that guard against ember infringement on homes. This includes installing non-combustible roofing and enclosing the underside of eaves.
In the aftermath of the devastating 2009 “Black Saturday” bushfires, which ravaged over 2,000 homes and tragically took the lives of 173 individuals, authorities in Australia decided to take a significantly tougher approach. In response to this catastrophic event, they made crucial amendments to the building code, imposing stringent restrictions on the construction of new homes in the most high-risk areas.
Another critical issue in the US that Canada should address is the cultural intolerance for reckless behavior that leads to approximately 80% of wildfires being started by human carelessness. Despite decades of warnings from iconic figures like Smokey Bear, a pervasive lack of accountability for these actions persists.
Canada’s split has been roughly 50/50 between human and naturally caused fires. With record population growth, that split is changing; humans are pulling ahead.
Furthermore, the US acknowledges the mistake of trying to extinguish wildfires aggressively without prioritizing fuel management in the wildlands. As a result, landscapes that need controlled burns to prevent catastrophic wildfires have become overgrown tinderboxes, exacerbated by various conflicting interests ranging from environmental concerns to budget constraints.
While some suggest forming a national fire department, the US argues that Canada should focus on creating resilient homes with mandatory WUI building codes, launching a fierce campaign to curb human-caused fires, and advocating beneficial fuel management in the WUI. Pouring money into fire stations might not solve the problem entirely, but learning from past errors and taking decisive actions can make a significant difference in mitigating the mounting wildfire problem in Canada.