In early summer, Canada’s ministers of emergency management gathered for a scheduled virtual meeting. In many of their communities, a surge of natural disasters was disrupting life with daunting regularity. Hundreds of wildfires were raging, and two-thirds were classified as out-of-control by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.
“The frequency and the severity of natural disasters, including floods and wildfires, are growing every year,” said the Honourable Bill Blair, co-chair of the meeting and then federal Minister of Emergency Preparedness, calling for a pan-Canadian focus on disaster resilience in communities.
Within weeks, tens of thousands of people would face evacuation in the western and northern regions of the country. British Columbia would declare a state of emergency even with more than 3,500 firefighters on duty, drawing support from around the globe. As B.C. premier David Eby toured the fire-damaged areas in West Kelowna in late summer, he observed that the province’s emergency response capacity was not keeping pace with increased need. “We are going to have to look at a permanent emergency response team, much like how we moved our wildfire service to year-round,” he said.
The emergency in B.C. brought the threat of fire close to the Haywood-Farmer ranch — and not for the first time. The family runs a cattle operation in the grasslands and mountain ridges of the traditional Secwépemc territory in the south-central interior of the province. Just two years prior, they faced a challenging ordeal when the 2021 Tremont Creek fire raced through their community.
“Sadly, despite significant efforts, we lost cattle to the fire,” recalls Andrea Barnett, a family member who also works for Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) as a conservation specialist. “We also lost our range infrastructure like fences, corrals and water infrastructure. We were fortunate to not lose any buildings, but we suffered extensive losses when most of our range burned.”
And when the fire emergency ended, the losses did not.
Ranchers who were affected suddenly needed extra resources for their cattle. Unplanned costs included “paying for feed, paying for the transportation of livestock, and paying for some of the infrastructure that was devastated,” notes Barnett, adding that the provincial and federal governments provided essential disaster management support. Many pastures remained unusable the next year, so cattle had to be relocated to other regions. Broader losses included natural resources such as future timber in managed forests.
“The year of the fire, there was a chilling dearth of wildlife,” says Barnett. “Two years later, there are some encouraging signs of recovery. We are seeing increasing ungulate populations, like moose. Several bird species, like the western tanager and the three-toed woodpecker, are doing well and waterfowl have returned in their usual numbers.”
The scale of storms, floods and wildfires in Canada is ringing alarm bells across the country — overall costs are rising in environmental, social and economic terms. And yet, looking ahead there is opportunity to recover and do things differently on the land. The current, unprecedented investments in nature by Canada’s governments and corporations offer a unique opportunity to collaborate widely on a short list of nature-based solutions.
Keeping more water on the landscape tops the list. Wet landscapes are less susceptible to fire, slowing the fire’s progress and providing water for fire crews, refuge for wildlife and livestock, and resources for post-fire recovery. These same features — wetlands, ponds, waterways — also help moderate flood emergencies during extreme weather events.
“This requires an ecosystems-first approach that puts watershed health and wetlands at the core,” says Barnett. “It’s important to keep water on the landscape for wildfire management, conservation, as well as drought and flood mitigation and preparedness.
Investing in water infrastructure helps to achieve so many broader objectives — whether we’re talking about wildfire management, in support of nature-based climate change solutions or industries like agriculture, wildlife more broadly, recreation, human health or public safety. It is such a high-value investment.”
Barnett’s community is better prepared for the next wildfire, but she believes that “larger systemic changes are needed to build landscape resilience.”
“Our neighbour community, Skeetchestn, who we have a strong relationship with, has been trying to lead the way on this for years,” she says. “Long-held fire management methods that Indigenous communities have used for millennia, including strategic controlled burns, debris management and wetland stewardship, can be braided into a holistic fire management and response approach, which will offer the best outcomes for the landscape and those who live there.”
“Despite the short-term hardship,” she continues, “we have noted significant ecosystem benefits post-fire — especially in forage production. After all, this is a fire-dependent ecosystem that has suffered fire deficit for the past century.”
Today’s extreme weather is a prelude to what we should anticipate in the future. Events that were previously considered improbable or less damaging are now part of the realm of the possible. Heat waves will come, forests will burn, rivers and valleys will flood, and other extreme storms form our new baseline.
From A Climate Reckoning: The economic costs of BC’s extreme weather in 2021 by Marc Lee and Ben Parfitt. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2022.
Wetlands in B.C. often exist because of water storage, which is particularly needed in dry interior regions. DUC manages more than 600 wetland infrastructure projects across the province. Ensuring that water infrastructures are well-maintained is essential for long-term wildfire management.
Over time, natural processes, weather events, and wildlife and human activity can reduce the capacities of these projects to alleviate the severity of floods, droughts and wildfires. Significant investments, partnerships and regulatory support are ongoing requisites to maintain their critical functions.
Prioritizing watershed health—including wetlands—has a crucial role in disaster resilience for communities. Wetlands help mitigate wildfires, as they are less vulnerable to burning and provide water sources for both firefighting and recovery efforts. They also provide fire refuge for wildlife and farm animals.
Yes, Indigenous communities have a wealth of knowledge in fire management specific to their local landscape. Collaborating with Indigenous leaders can help communities prepare for wildfires, respond effectively, and implement holistic fire-management approaches that align with nature-based climate solutions.
Communities can enhance their wildfire preparedness by improving information exchange systems, cooperating widely in all stages of fire management, and making ecosystem-centered planning a top priority. Preserving wetlands is essential for landscape resilience and biodiversity conservation.
Increasingly, communities are facing floods, fires and sea-level rise. These hazards affect B.C.’s ecosystems, too.
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