From the Northwest Territories in Canada to Maui in the United States – and many places in between – community after community has felt the devastating impacts of wildfires this summer.
The raging flames have taken lives and caused tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, and the smoke has poisoned the air throughout North America and even into Europe.
With each fire, people around the world have rallied together to help pick up the pieces and support affected communities as they figure out what’s next.
For example, as Maui was still reeling from the deadly wildfires that tore through the island this August, local chefs, culinary students, and volunteers came together to cook and distribute 10,000 meals a day to those affected.
Now it’s time for the government to step up and take urgent actions to reduce the threat of wildfires. While we need to retire fossil fuels to stop climate change, the following four government actions will help defend us from climate-fuelled wildfires:
- Invest much more in forest fire prevention;
- Support proven Indigenous-led controlled burning techniques;
- Protect and grow our forests; and
- Support wildfire fighters and evacuees.
- Spend more on prevention to spend less on destruction: The financial toll of dealing with the devastation caused by wildfires is staggering. B.C.’s 2021 wildfire season, for example, cost the government $801 million directly and up to $24 billion indirectly. Compare this to the province’s wildfire prevention budget of $32 million per year and it’s clear that this system is out of balance.
Governments need to restore and expand fire prevention budgets, which have been continually slashed in many places since the 1990s. This includes expanding the number of jobs in forest services, investing in Indigenous-led fire stewardship, and funding fire preventative measures like prescribed and cultural burning.
Top action for governments to take: Invest more in fire prevention to save money on fire suppression and recovery, especially prescribed burns with proven effectiveness. Which takes us to point two…
- Burn more to lose less: It’s counter-intuitive, but the increasing wildfires we’re seeing throughout North America this summer are actually due, in part, to there no longer being enough of the right kinds of fires.
Fire plays an essential role in making our natural environments healthy and strong. Indeed, Indigenous people have used controlled burns to shape the land around their communities to protect them against out of control wildfires for generations.
Expanding controlled burning is one of the fastest and most effective ways to reduce the severity and spread of wildfires. Without easy and abundant fuel, fires are less likely to rage out of control. This gives firefighters the key advantage they need to put them out before the damage becomes too great.
However, during colonization, governments banned Indigenous communities from using their own traditional fire management practices.
And, in the twentieth century, governments in Canada and the US moved away from this beneficial relationship with fire, and instead began to focus on fire suppression – dealing with fires once they have already started.
The result of decades of these failed policies is that forests are now filled with dry material – like grass, dead leaves, and tree needles – that are primed to ignite and help flames spread.
There are two main kinds of Indigenous-led controlled burning – prescribed burning, and cultural burning.
Prescribed burning is the intentional, planned, and knowledgeable use of fire in a particular area. Cultural burning is similar, but differs in certain areas like the goals of the burn, and the methods used to start the fire.
Both prescribed and cultural burning, especially when used in harmony, have been shown to not only preserve and enhance natural landscapes, but also to protect communities from the destruction that wildfires bring.
Top action for governments to take: Support the expansion of prescribed and cultural burning.
- Protect our forests: Forests have an incredible ability to store vast amounts of carbon in their soils and trees. The forests keep the carbon out of our atmosphere and stop it from adding to the dangerous rise in temperatures around the globe.
On the flip side, when burned by wildfires, that carbon billows into the atmosphere in smoke. This creates a feedback loop: climate change causes more wildfires, wildfires release once-stored carbon back into the atmosphere, which causes more climate change.
Canada’s vast boreal forest is the largest carbon storehouse in the world – housing 12% of the world’s total carbon. Making sure that it is able to play its role in safely storing carbon is essential in protecting the planet from worsening climate impacts like wildfires.
Top action for governments to take: Protect forests, especially old growth and intact primary forests, and manage industry to grow more forests than we log.
- Increase support for first responders and wildfire evacuees: Canada currently has roughly 5,500 “wildland” firefighters – those who are trained to deal with fires that start in forests. This number falls far short of the amount necessary to deal with the record-breaking wildfires we have seen in the past few years.
In the U.S. that number is 11,187, which is even fewer firefighters per person who needs to be protected than Canada.
The 2023 wildfire season in particular showed just how urgent the need is to increase these numbers. As fires raged across the country from coast to coast – and at the same time – there were not enough firefighters or aircraft to answer them all.
More and more, wildland firefighters lean on the support of “structural” firefighters – those who keep homes and businesses safe from fire in cities and towns – to help keep wildfires at bay. In Canada, over 70% of these firefighters are volunteers – fighting fires in addition to their day jobs.
To keep communities safe as the rate of wildfires increases in the coming years, governments must invest more in hiring, training, and retaining career firefighters.
At the same time, more and more people are being forced to flee their homes due to wildfires – such as the 20,000 people who had to evacuate in a moment’s notice in the Northwest Territories in August.
Often, much of the financial support these communities desperately need to get to safety and eventually rebuild comes in the form of donations from caring individuals. Governments must also do their part by directing more federal and provincial funding to emergency wildfire relief for affected communities.
Top action for governments to take: Invest more in hiring, training, and retaining firefighters, and expand financial support for wildfire evacuees.
So to sum it up – while efforts to retire fossil fuels need to be stepped up, governments can reduce the threat of wildfires by investing in fire prevention, supporting proven Indigenous-led controlled burning techniques, protecting and growing forests, and supporting wildfire fighters and evacuees.
Now, what can you do?
My Climate Plan is a member-organization that helps people make their communities climate safe, and that includes organizing advocacy campaigns. We’re in our founding year, and our founding members have voted to make advocacy our top priority as we launch.
We want to know what you think – should My Climate Plan make getting governments in Canada and the US to do more to prepare for and reduce wildfires its first priority for advocacy? Or would you rather see us start by focusing on another way of helping communities become climate safe?