Note: My focus in these “reading new thoughts” posts is on new ways of thinking about a topic, not on a review of the books themselves.
Edward Struzik’s “Firestorm: How Wildfires Will Shape Our Future” adds, it seems to me, three important points to my understanding of climate change:
1. We are on the verge of an era in which wildfires more massive than we have ever seen produce harmful effects of which we have seen only glimpses: shattering of ecosystems, traveling of mercury pollution around the world, blackening of ice that hastens melting and sea level rise, and of course death and destruction.
2. Understanding of climate change’s reality “on the ground” is no longer limited to scientists and environmentalists, but is a fundamental reality of firefighters who must anticipate each season’s worsening challenges.
3. We are near a breaking point in terms of our overall societal response to wildfires, as evidenced by the fact that the majority share of US and Canadian budgets for forestry management is now being devoted to firefighting rather than planning, researching, and holistic approaches to forest management that would mitigate the upcoming effects cited in (1).
Upcoming Global Harmful Consequences of Wildfires
One virtue of Struzik’s Firestorm is that it goes into extensive detail about the actual effects of wildfires, on the forests, on neighboring humans and ecosystems, on human-generated toxins such as mercury which past resource extraction has left in the forests, and (via airborne carriage of wildfire byproducts) on geographies as far removed as British Columbia from New York and Alaska from Greenland. He tells us also of efforts to contain these harmful consequences, including pre-emptive “back-burning”, forecasting and planning to fight fires in locations such as Banff, and strengthening building codes and evacuation procedures in places such as Alberta near the oil sands.
The overall picture is of an entire region – the forests of western Canada and the US, certainly echoed in Australia and northern Russia, and probably echoed in areas such as Indonesia – increasingly subjected to wildfires whose massive intensity and destructiveness is hard to express. Two key factors drive this future of massive wildfires: the legacy of forest management that for a century did not burn these forests and thus increased the power and ecosystem destruction of these burnings, and climate change that is bringing increasing drought, greater energy for the wildfires, and new invasive species that combine with wildfires to exacerbate the resulting damage.
What harmful effects should we really be concerned about above all? As I understand it, deaths from being trapped in a wildfire, horrible as they are, are the least damaging of these. The following seem of greater import:
· Death from ingesting or breathing the byproducts of wildfires, at a distance from the fire itself. Struzik cites the French fires that caused the deaths of thousands of Parisians in the early 2000s. Upcoming wildfires are likely to produce more intense and therefore more deadly byproducts, and to affect regions much further away than the distance between two regions in France.
· The destruction of northern ecosystems (e.g., trees, caribou, polar bear) and replacement by impoverished more southerly ecosystems prone to erosion and collapse (tundra). In other words, the new ecosystems not only decimate existing northern species but replace them with more temperate ecosystems that are far less functional (and therefore less arable) than the temperate ecosystems we have now. To put it bluntly, if humanity looks to survive in the future on the bounty of Canada and Siberia, wildfires are going to make that far more difficult.
· There is a strong danger of increased carriage of black soot (black carbon) to areas of existing land and sea ice in the Arctic (apparently, not in the Antarctic). This may well speed up Greenland land ice melt and Arctic sea ice seasonal melting significantly, thus turbocharging that part of sea level rise. So far, this seems less of a factor, but with the increasing power of wildfires, all bets are off.
People Start Seeing Climate Change In Their Jobs
To me, one of the striking things in Struzik’s book is the extent to which western firefighters are having their noses rubbed into the fact of climate change. Granted, this awareness is centered in those firefighting coordinators who must plan for each season’s likely wildfires. However, Struzik suggests that any experienced wildfire fighter recognizes the differences from 20-30 years ago – and certainly some awareness should be rubbing off on newbies.
To me, this puts the debate about climate change on a whole different level. Generally, firefighters are part and parcel of communities; they can’t be written off as “outside” environmentalists and scientists. And climate change is not something they can face or not face as part of being a well-rounded person outside of their jobs – handling climate change is now an integral part of their jobs. At the very least, this ought to change somewhat the conversation from caricatures of “us vs. them” or “effete soft-hearted eggheads” vs “hard-headed real-world types.”
The Wildfire Breaking Point
If there is a sense of urgency in Struzik’s Firestorm, it lies primarily in his worries about our responses to the increasing threat over the last 30 or so years. He documents how very recent fires such as the one near Fort McMurray came very close to being far, far worse in terms of lives lost and destruction of valuable property. He suggests that although there has been a massive increase in the knowledge of how to manage wildfires for the best combination of destruction followed by ecosystem repair, minimal long-term impact on human and plant/animal environment, and long-term solutions to the increasing pressure of humans on forest environments, these have been far from widely applied in the field. Instead, asserts Struzik, lack of government and other funding means that, more and more, long-term strategy is coming in a poor second to simply managing to contain the next season’s fires.
Inevitably, then, unless things change, the system will reach a point where each season, the costs of wildfires will mount catastrophically, because not only do budgets not cover all the firefighting needed but the accumulated “debt” of things undone in previous seasons will add to the destruction. In other words, to get back to anything approximating today’s halcyon days will require far more planning, back-burning, and ecosystem repair than is required now – if it can be done at all.
The answer, I think, is that, like Struzik, we need to see our efforts with regard to wildfires as an integral and inevitable part of our climate-change spending. There is far less argument about adaptation than mitigation, and, unfortunately, probably far more spending on adaptation than mitigation. Wildfire strategy is primarily an adaptation strategy – it affects carbon pollution, but much less than fossil-fuel combustion. Therefore, there should be much less resistance to this type of approach and spending. One hopes.