Thu. May 23rd, 2024

Smoke from massive wildfires in Canada reaching the US –

I wish I could go back 40 years and pay closer attention to the warning signs of wildfires during my time as a firefighter in the United States. Today, as I witness smoke from massive wildfires in Canada reaching the US, I believe it’s Canada’s turn to heed the lessons from these fires and change our approach. One significant mistake we made was failing to align building and infrastructure development with fire protection responsibilities.


In the US, local government entities have the authority for development, while state and federal firefighting organizations are responsible for protecting vast wildland acres. This disconnect becomes problematic in areas where human settlements meet the natural environment, known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI), as those creating the interface are not held accountable for its protection. To illustrate this issue, I recall an intense wildfire incident in Pebble Beach, California, where homes were destroyed due to an illegal campfire that spread to wood-shingled roofs, approved because they blended with the natural surroundings.


Australia, on the other hand, handled its growing WUI differently. They enacted a national code for “bushfire-prone” areas in 1996, mandating building materials and construction methods that guard against ember infringement on homes. After the devastating 2009 “Black Saturday” bushfires, they imposed stricter restrictions on new homes in high-risk areas. Despite the stringency, they allowed performance-based alternatives, fostering innovation while maintaining the intent of the national code, and shifting the responsibility away from local entities.


Another regret is that we missed the opportunity to create cultural intolerance for reckless behavior. In the US, around 80% of wildfires result from human carelessness. Despite longstanding campaigns like Smokey Bear urging caution, there have been few consequences for those responsible. As a result, there is a pervasive lack of accountability.


Overall, we need to learn from our past mistakes, prioritize safety over aesthetics in development, and foster a culture of responsibility to effectively combat wildfires in the future.