Building resilience in the era of megafire
Climate change and decades of fire suppression have fueled increasingly destructive wildfires across the western U.S. and Canada. Stanford scholars and wildfire experts outline how a path forward requires responsive management, risk reduction, and Indigenous stewardship.
Wildfires are becoming bigger, more destructive, more toxic, and harder to fight on the front lines. Beyond the immediate structural damage and loss of life, the impacts of wildfires are felt acutely by rural and Indigenous communities, who suffer long-term displacement and public health effects.
Traditional forest stewardship practices can help make communities more resilient to such risks, according to a panel of Stanford scholars who joined U.S. and Canadian experts on wildfire management for an Oct. 27 webinar hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. It was the third in a series of webinars convened by the Woods Institute to examine the relation between climate change, extreme events, and how impacts are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable.
A “killer trifecta”
There are three main factors that lead to worsening wildfires, noted Alexandra Konings, an assistant professor of Earth system science at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. Climate change yields higher temperatures and drier conditions that prime the landscape for fires to catch and spread. More people are living in the wildland-urban interface, increasing the opportunities for ignition. Finally, historical regimes of fire suppression have built up huge amounts of fuel – the combustible natural materials that feed blazes.
The effects of this “killer trifecta” are becoming more clear each year. In June of 2021, Lytton, a town in British Columbia broke national temperature records. Just days later it was razed by a catastrophic wildfire.
Rana Sarkar, Consul General of Canada in San Francisco/Silicon Valley, noted that it will be important to deepen partnerships in order to tackle these challenges. Recent efforts between the western U.S. and Canada to develop a resilient strategy have included exchanging practical resources like firefighting teams as well as sharing best practices with a wide variety of stakeholders.
Insights from Indigenous fire stewardship
Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and Canada have a long history of using fire for cultural uses like hunting, encouraging growth of food sources, and burning medicinal plants – with the added benefit of reducing fuel load.
But provincial policies have prevented Indigenous communities from using those practices passed down by elders, noted Amy Cardinal Christianson, a fire research scientist in the Canadian Forest Service and a member of the Métis Nation. She emphasized the intense inequalities perpetuated by wildfire, highlighting that Indigenous peoples make up only five percent of the Canadian population, but 42 percent of Canadian wildfire evacuees and 78 percent of smoke evacuees.
“Even though our nations are highly adaptable and used to fire and fire-dependent, we’ve become vulnerable through colonization to the impacts of fire,” said Christianson.
Many agencies seeking solutions often end up appropriating traditional knowledge, narrowly applying practices like prescribed burns without engaging in Indigenous-led management. “Indigenous fire stewardship just isn't the burning events of cultural burning, it's all the manipulation and modification of vegetation and fuels between the fires,” said Frank Lake, a research ecologist and tribal liaison in the U.S. Forest Service.
Not enough to fight fire with fire
Despite the potential benefits of implementing so-called good fire, there are many barriers to reintroducing cultural burning practices. Indigenous elders with essential knowledge of cultural burning often don’t have the resources to navigate the bureaucracy of acquiring permits. Even with permits, many areas are now too loaded with fuel to safely perform cultural burns.
Sarkar recognizes that the age of megafires now requires a broad spectrum of approaches. “It's the interface of the conversation about equity, our relationship with Indigenous peoples, our ability to manage a new kind of community settlement, new forms of resources that are not just firefighting resources, but also ways of supporting communities through challenges."
Konings is also a center fellow, by courtesy, at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and an assistant professor, by courtesy, of geophysics. Field is the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment; the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences and the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability; and senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy.
This webinar was presented in partnership with the Consulate General of Canada, San Francisco/Silicon Valley.