Fires biting at our heels

Two firefighters walk in a forest, trying to protect it from forest fire damage.
Maybe if they try licking the flames back? 12019 via Pixabay

Manitoba fights for survival against rampaging flames

by alistair vigier, contributor

Hardly halfway through the year and already Manitoba is already grappling with the relentless onslaught of forest fires, pushing this Canadian province toward potential calamity. An alarming 75,000 square kilometres of our pristine Canadian wilderness has fallen prey to the seemingly insatiable flames, more firmly turning a dark page in Canada’s history. 

Amidst the ash-laden haze obscuring the burnt expanses from the Pembina Valley to the Interlake regions, a ray of optimism emerged. Tireless brigades of local, provincial, national, and international volunteers managed to stem the destructive tide of the forest fires. 200 firefighters from Mexico just arrived in British Columbia to help fight some of the many fires in the country.  

Firefighters from France and Spain have also been assisting. These forest firefighters, also known as wildland firefighters, use a variety of methods to combat forest fires.  

Managing forest fires 

The strategy depends on factors such as the type and size of the fire, the terrain, the weather, and the available resources. Below are some common projects that these volunteer forest fire fighters are working on. 

Creating firelines: also known as a firebreak, this is a gap in vegetation or other combustible material that is cleared out to stop the fire from spreading by reducing areas it could potentially spread to. Firefighters use tools like chainsaws, shovels, and other hand tools to remove trees, bushes, and other potential fuel for the fire. 

Backburning: this is the process of intentionally starting fires under controlled conditions in the path of the main fire. The idea is to consume the fuel in the main fire’s path so that it runs out of material to burn, similarly to creating firelines. 

Aerial firefighting: this involves dropping water or fire retardant chemicals from aircraft onto the fire. The materials help to suppress the fire and protect areas that it might otherwise reach. 

Using water: firefighters also put out fires using water, which absorbs heat and reduces the oxygen available to the fire. Fire engines and hoses are often used, but in remote areas water can be transported by helicopter in large buckets.  

To these brave warriors of the wildfire, I extend my deepest appreciation. 

The grasp of climate change 

There’s no denying it: Manitoba’s ecosystem is succumbing to the inexorable grasp of climate change. Forest fires are no longer rare, but have become recurring nightmares that arrive sooner, stay longer, and spread with increasing speed, making their containment an escalating challenge. We’ve been spared the very worst so far, but our fortune is fading. 

Climatic conditions are driving wildfires to become frequent, intense, and erratic. Increased summer temperatures, predicted to rise by 2-3°C by 2050, have been linked to increased fire activity. This means Manitoba’s future could witness longer fire seasons, spanning up to seven months rather than the current five. 

On the other hand, Manitoba’s precipitation levels are declining. Projections suggest a decrease of about 7 per cent by the mid-century, bringing drier conditions conducive to igniting blazes. This makes Manitoba’s vast boreal forest, covering 75 per cent of the province, a potential tinderbox, igniting at the slightest provocation. 

Ready fuel for fires 

Fueling the flames further, spruce budworm and mountain pine beetle infestations are rising. They leave dead, dry trees in their wake, providing ready fuel for fires. Research shows that beetle-infested forests are twice as likely to burn. Manitoba’s future may bring fires burning hotter, faster, and more unpredictably. 

The human cost would be staggering. Almost 70 per cent of Manitoba’s population lives within the boreal region. A future escalation of fires could put 870,000 people directly in harm’s way (and that’s not counting the countless Indigenous communities whose culture, history, and current livelihoods are rooted in these forests). 

Air quality deterioration is another concern. Forest fires emit harmful pollutants, causing a surge in respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. With increasing fire activities, Manitoba and the rest of the country could see the rise in respiratory illness and climbing hospital admission rates due to those same illnesses. 

The cost of fire suppression 

The financial toll would be enormous too. Over the past decade, Manitoba spent an average of $100 million per year on fire suppression. This could skyrocket to $300 million annually if fires intensify. The wider economic fallout could lead to a GDP contraction of up to 1.5 per cent per year. 

Manitoba’s biodiversity is at risk too. Endangered species like the woodland caribou and wolverine could see their habitats shrink by 40 per cent. Fires also release vast amounts of carbon stored in forests, accelerating global warming. 

If the situation worsens, the very identity of Manitoba – the land of 100,000 lakes, the “Keystone Province” – might be at stake. It’s a grim scenario, but it’s one we need to understand to prepare for and mitigate. The future of Manitoba is in our hands, let’s not let it go up in smoke. 

Fire safety guidelines 

The government has admirably initiated the distribution of fire safety guidelines to the public, promoting responsible behaviours that echo the lessons of Smokey Bear. While this is a beneficial step, the stark reality is that no measure of individual vigilance can shield us entirely from wildfires.  

Despite our conscientious camping practices, Manitoba fires will rage on, highlighting the pressing need for a thorough readiness plan and strategy. 

The repercussions of this fire season 

The wildfire crisis seizing Manitoba calls for a dramatic shift in our approach. Developing policies that propel us toward a zero-carbon future isn’t just appealing – it’s an absolute requirement. Our fight against these blazes mirrors our broader struggle against a changing environment

As the final sparks of the Pembina Valley fire gradually extinguish, the lingering warmth of this disaster should act as a grave reminder. Those in positions of power must comprehend the intensity of this crisis, ensuring that the wounds inflicted by this fire season spur decisive action. 


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