Experts warn it is only a matter of time before another community in Canada is ravaged by a sudden intense wildfire similar to the one that hit Fort McMurray.
And the insurance industry says governments aren’t doing enough to prevent destructive blazes before they happen.
In recent years, other big wildfires have caused extensive damage in Kelowna, B.C., and Slave Lake, Alta., or seriously threatened communities, including La Ronge, Sask., and Timmins, Ont.
“These were not one-offs. It is not a fluke,” says Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta. ”It is going to happen again.”
Natural Resources Canada says climate change is expected to result in more frequent forest fires that have severe consequences. The area burned could double by the end of the century compared with recent decades.
Sylvie Gauthier with the Canadian Forest Service says a warming climate has already made forests in much of Canada drier than they used to be. Last spring was one of the driest in the Fort McMurray area in the last 100 years.
As temperatures increase, so will the risk.
“The expectation is it will grow in the coming years,” Gauthier says. “For a large portion of the boreal forest the fire season is also projected to be longer.”
Another factor is that more people — a major cause of wildfires along with lightning — are choosing to live, work and play in forested areas.
Governments already spend millions of dollars every year to respond to wildfires and help pay for damage.
But the Insurance Bureau of Canada says more must be done to prevent fires rather than dealing with the destruction afterwards.
Bill Adams, the bureau’s vice-president, says governments are spending more on measures to mitigate the threat, but it isn’t enough.
“Awareness is critical and at this point it is exceptionally low,” he says. “Unless we have a much higher level of awareness around this risk — and prudent investments and action taken by federal and provincial governments and individual citizens — it is likely that we will have another major damaging fire.”
Adams says measures should include creating buffer zones around communities and homes by removing trees and brush that could act as pathways for a fire. Builders should also be required to use less flammable roofing and siding material.
Adams says the fact no one died in the Fort McMurray disaster is astounding, despite more than 80,000 people being forced to flee and almost 2,600 dwellings being destroyed.
He says the evacuation’s success was partly due to there being a major highway leading out of the city, the relatively young age of residents and many people having some knowledge of safety from living in an oil industry community.
That might not be the case if a major fire were to threaten a more remote community with older, less healthy residents and fewer roads.
“That is why we are sounding the alarm as an industry about raising the level of preparedness and that starts with understanding the risk.”
Flannigan says governments should funnel fire prevention money to communities that need it the most.
Municipalities need to change how they plan development, such as not building homes and subdivisions right next to forests, he suggests. More attention also must be played to the threat that wildfires pose to remote indigenous communities that don’t have roads.
Flannigan believes the Fort McMurray wildfire is a wake-up call to governments that more needs to be done sooner rather than later.
“Sometimes to change our behaviour you need a few bloody noses. Well, we have had a few bloody noses, and it is time to change.”
John Cotter, The Canadian Press