A thick blanket of acrid smoke sits atop much of eastern North America. This region of more than 112 million people has recently been subjected to elevated levels of ash and soot because of wildfires burning in Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Quebec. Wildfire smoke does not recognize international boundaries; it goes wherever the prevailing winds carry it. This spring, the jet stream has blown the smoke into major population centres such as Toronto, Ottawa, New York and Washington.
The science of wildfire smoke is growing more sophisticated – and what it’s telling us is disconcerting. We’re not only experiencing an environmental health crisis, but its massive social and economic implications.
The huge annual economic costs of current fire management policies – from lost homes and structures to mill closings and equipment purchases – mean that billions of dollars are lost to governments and industry every year. Forest fires are responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths because of exposure to wildfire smoke, with the young and old disproportionately affected. Cardiopulmonary disease, cancer, dementia and preterm births are all associated with chronic exposure to wildfire smoke. Add in public anxiety and the sorrows of seeing the community you’ve always lived in being burned to the ground, and it’s no wonder that wildfires have become a leading source of public frustration and anger.
In the Western U.S. states and Canadian provinces, the smoke crisis is part of a larger forest management crisis. You can’t fix wildfire smoke without first fixing forestry, and you can’t fix forestry in isolation. To that end, Canada and the U.S. will need to embark on an unprecedented, continental-scale collaboration. Solving the forest management crisis will take innovative knowledge, political leadership and public support to create the kind of transformational change necessary to avert a social, environmental and economic disaster.
That change includes: employing thousands of people to remove hazardous fuels from our forests and manufacture them into profitable commodities, such as wood pellets, biodiesel, engineered wood products; conducting prescribed and cultural burns; and managing forests for long-term ecological, wildlife and social/cultural benefits rather than focusing on short-term economic profits. It also means displacing carbon-emission intensive industries with ones that store carbon or have a much smaller emissions footprint.
The old pattern of logging, replanting and waiting for the forest to grow into mature, tall, large-diameter trees that support sawmills is long gone. The forest industry of the future will need to survive on a diet of small-diameter and burned trees. This new industry focus will need to include engineered wood products and bioenergy products including wood pellets and biodiesel. It’s a 180-degree turn from our current path.
The billions of tonnes of biomass that needs to be removed from Canadian and American forests is expensive to access and has low end-product value. Both countries will need to subsidize actions to mitigate fire hazards and find markets large enough to absorb the significant quantities of product. Without changes to trade agreements such as the Canada-U.S. Softwood Lumber Agreement, success at solving the crisis will be illusory.
A strong commitment by the U.S. and Canadian federal governments, in tandem with big industry, can take much of the risk out of innovation and experimentation – both necessary for the move to produce carbon-storing technologies and products from low-value biomass. This approach can reduce emissions, stabilize local employment and the tax base of rural communities, and generate royalties and tax revenues to government while helping to make our forests more resilient.
This is all possible, but it requires challenging the orthodoxy of resource management. North America remains firmly committed to an approach entirely divorced from actually solving the wildfire problem. We can’t log our way out of it. We can’t continue to throw millions of dollars a year at fire suppression while investing paltry sums on mitigation and prevention. We can’t insist on fire-hardened homes if we don’t help homeowners invest in proper building materials and maintain their properties. And we can’t insist on fire-hardened communities if we don’t fire-harden our landscapes at the same time.
There are some promising initiatives: California budgeted US$1.5-billion in 2021 for improving forest health, and the Premier of B.C. and the governors of Washington, Oregon and California had a meeting recently to discuss the wildfire crisis. But surprisingly little co-ordination exists at a national or international scale.
Time, money and policy scope are the threads running though all of this. We want quick solutions to our wildfire crisis that won’t cost too much, while neglecting the need to address the forest landscape and to co-ordinate policies across state, provincial and international boundaries. A successful approach will take several decades, which in turn will require a transformational change in how we manage our forests.
The looming crisis has convinced many that forestry in the West is a dying industry and is not worth salvaging. But it’s neither wise nor necessary to abandon active forest management in Western North America. Reducing the threat and damage from wildfires and mitigating smoke emissions can happen – but not without stable and innovative forest management policies that are co-ordinated among all levels of government. With a mix of political resolve and public support, this is the solution that could become the future face of forest management in both the U.S. and Canada.