The past few months have been busy for the Aboriginal Firefighters Association and the Indigenous Fire Marshall Office (IFMO) project. One underlying theme to these busy times has been the relationship between climate change and wildfires. AFAC’s Executive Director Blaine Wiggins recently travelled to Australia to meet with Indigenous firefighters batting the wildfires that have captured media attention. As well, several team members have attended conferences and gatherings on fire-related topics including the impacts of climate change.
Increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters have dominated the media in recent years, including wildfires. Several factors are leading to the increased size, frequency, and losses during fires. One undeniable factor is climate change. January 2020 was the warmest month on Earth since record collection began in 1880, and to compound this, January 2020’s temperatures were not impacted by el nino or above average solar radiation (Masters, 2020).
As temperatures rise, the risk of drought is increasing and fire seasons are getting longer as the snow melts earlier and the fall frost arrives later (PCC, 2019). Pine beetle devastation has also decimated forests and increased the amount of fuel available to feed fires. The general poor health of forests due to forest management policies and fire suppression practices that have stifled natural fire patterns and resulted in a sharp rise of combustible material contribute to the fuel load (Kovacs, 2001; Kovacs, 2018). Warmer weather is also windier; western Canada can expect to see an increase of 50% in dry windy days, eastern Canada can expect a 200-300% increase (PCC, 2019). These are dangerous conditions, especially considering that warmer temperatures also breed more frequent and severe storms with the lightning to ignite this dry, tinder-filled environment.
The impacts of increased fire activity due to climate change is of particular importance to Indigenous communities — over one third of people evacuated due to fire since 1980 lived in Indigenous communities (Beverly & Bothwell, 2011, as cited in Kovacs, 2018). As discussed in our most recent newsletter, the most vulnerable members of the community — women, Elders, and children — are disproportionately impacted when evacuated from their homes and communities.
Another implication of climate change and the increase in wildfires is the impact it has on insurance. One common theme in the community engagement sessions that AFAC held in the fall of 2019 surrounded the difficulties in securing affordable and adequate insurance in many Indigenous communities. A recent article in Yale Climate Connections discusses the insurance implications of the California wildfires. Insurance rates have skyrocketed, leaving many unable to afford their premiums; others have had their policy renewals refused. Dave Jones, a former insurance commissioner of California sums up the issue succinctly with this warning of what’s to come:
“We are marching steadily towards an uninsurable future with regard to wildfire risk.”
As the wildfire risk increases due to climate change, there has been renewed interest in reviving the traditional fire management practices that have been used by Indigenous Peoples worldwide for thousands of years. Read more on how Traditional Knowledge of the land and the benefits of fire can be used to mitigate the risk wildfires.
Kovacs, P. (2001). Wildfires and insurance. ICLR. Retrieved from https://www.iclr.org/wp-content/uploads/PDFS/wildfires-and-insurance.pdf.
Kovacs, P. (2018). Development permits: An emerging policy instrument for local governments to manage interface fire risk in a changing climate. Retrieved from https://www.iclr.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Development-Permits_2018.pdf
Masters, J. (13 Feb 2020). January 2020: earths warmest January on record. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/eye-of-the-storm/january-2020-earths-warmest-january-on-record.
Prairie Climate Centre (PCC). (2019). Forest Fires and Climate Change. Climate atlas of Canada Retrieved from https://climateatlas.ca/forest-fires-and-climate-change.
Yale Climate Connections (30 January 2020). “After California wildfires, insurance companies drop some homeowner policies. https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/01/after-california-wildfires-insurance-companies-drop-some-homeowner-policies/