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Book Review: Edward Struzik, Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future

June 1, 2019

Wild Lands Advocate article by: Ian Urquhart

The timing was impeccable, but sadly so. Edward Struzik’s book Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future hit bookshelves while the memories of the tragic Horse River Fire were all too fresh. That fire, nicknamed “The Beast,” burned approximately 1.5 million acres and devastated Fort McMurray in the spring of 2016. The Beast destroyed thousands of homes, helping to make the Horse Lake Fire the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. The fire garnered international attention and sympathy. Queen Elizabeth offered her condolences; Pope Francis prayed for the tens of thousands of people harmed and otherwise affected by the fire.

In its first chapter Firestorm offers a gripping account of what happened in Fort McMurray in 2016. It’s a story of confusion and chaos, of heroism and hubris. Its account underlines just how miraculous it was that nobody died.

Some may want to buy Firestorm just to read Struzik’s dramatic account of the Horse Lake Fire. But this is a book about much more than one unimaginable fire. Firestormis about what the Horse Lake Fire underlined so emphatically – we very likely have crossed the threshold of a new wildfire paradigm, that of the megafire. Megafire is a relatively new label used to describe fires greater than 100,000 acres or 40,468 hectares. As I write this review, four megafires are consuming 634,000 hectares of the Alberta’s northern forests. Megafires aren’t new. The 1950 Chinchaga fire made the front pages of the New York Times and its smoke turned day into night. On August 27, 1981 – a day dubbed “Black Thursday” – approximately 376,000 hectares of Alberta’s boreal forest exploded into flames in less than seven hours. But what is different now is that, in Struzik’s words, “megafires are occurring more often, displacing more and more people, and reshaping forest and tundra ecosystems in ways that scientists don’t fully understand.”

Throughout Firestorm Struzik treats his readers to the exceptional analysis and exposition distinguishing him as one of our best science/environment/nature writers. If the timing of the book was impeccable, so was the research that went into it. Those with an appetite for solid historical research will appreciate what Struzik delivers. In these pages you will learn about the Big Burn of 1910 and how that mammoth wildfire catalyzed American policy makers to embrace fire suppression, the need to fight virtually all fires in the woods. Canada followed the American lead and the 20th Century was one where the fire suppression ethic dominated. But, as Struzik’s historical research illustrates, more than fifty years ago some argued that prescribed burning should be a forestry management tool since fire was crucial to the ability of species like sequoias, jack pine, and lodgepole pine to regenerate. In this book you’ll meet the variety of factors that have made it so difficult to supplant or supplement one ethic with another.

If your tastes run more in the direction of craving expert opinion, Struzik delivers here as well. The insights of dozens of fire science, forest management, hydrology and other experts inform Struzik’s writing. Those insights are enriched by the author’s own on-the-ground experiences in the company of researchers. Alberta readers may be particularly interested here in Struzik’s description of the research that Uldis Silins and Monica Emelko are doing at the site of the Lost Creek Fire. Lost Creek forced the evacuation of several thousand people from the Crowsnest Pass in 2003. In part their research focuses on the vital issue of how wildfire affects the hydrology, water quality, and aquatic ecology of headwater streams in the front range of the Rockies.

The research of Silins, Emelko, and others studying with them at Lost Creek highlights a more general point of Struzik’s argument: wildfire impacts are not uniformly bad. Certainly wildfire delivers important consequences that raise serious causes for concern. Water quality may be most important here. Since most municipalities get their drinking water from forested headwaters, fires like that at Lost Creek may require improvements to municipal water treatment systems. But, the post-fire injection of nitrogen and phosphorous into nutrient-poor mountain streams increases the presence of algae, insects, and macroinvertebrates. This in turn is a benefit for trout and other fish. For me, the complexity of wildfire’s impacts was particularly evident in the book’s penultimate chapter. There you read about how wildfires will threaten some populations of flora and fauna while benefiting others. Wildfires and prescribed burning may contribute positively to biodiversity if we can discover ways to better understand and manage fire on the land.

Better understanding and management – those are the essential goals Struzik sets if we are to adapt to the growing importance of wildfire in our future. Climate change, as fire scientists such as Mike Flannigan conclude, guarantees the conditions for megafires in western Canada will remain, if not intensify. The northern forest climate change scenarios developed by Flannigan and many others “point to wildfires continuing to burn bigger, hotter, and faster in ways that will result in dramatic landscape changes and ecological and social challenges.” But, our ability to adjust and adapt to the demands of this new wildfire paradigm is frustrated by our allegiance to the management emphases and strategies of the established paradigm. We invest a pittance in fire science, forest management, and conservation, a situation created in part by the sharply escalating costs governments pay to combat megafires.

What we should do is becoming clearer and clearer; we need the political will to act. The recent past isn’t encouraging from the political will perspective. Wildfire experts developed a wildlands fire strategy for the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers in 2005. It recommended “more fire, more science, more education, and better funded FireSmart-type programs…” Government ministers balked at accepting this call for policy change. Little has improved on the management side of the ledger since then.

Edward Struzik’s Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future is a magnificent book. It’s a must-read for anyone wanting to learn about our past relationship with wildfire, for anyone looking for suggestions about what needs to be done to retain some influence over how wildfire will figure in our future.

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.
- Wallace Stegner
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