The ‘fire paradox’: Study suggests ways we fight northern wildfires could be increasing fire risk

Aggressive strategies for fighting wildfires may be making some northern communities more vulnerable to forest fires.

That’s according to research by Natural Resources Canada published in the journal Nature Communications in May.

The study is based on the idea that younger forests — woodlands that have had a big burn within the last 30 years — are less flammable than older forests which have gone for more than three decades without a major fire. 

Marc Parisien, a wildland fire scientist with Natural Resources Canada, is one of the study’s authors. (Submitted by Natural Resources Canada)

Researchers looked at 160 communities in Canada’s boreal forests, including about a dozen in the Northwest Territories. They compared the percentage of young forests within a 25-kilometre radius of each community to the percentage of young forests outside that radius.

The scientists found that many communities are surrounded by older, more flammable forests, and are therefore more susceptible to wildfires. They say fire suppression policies may be to blame.

“Because we’ve been putting out fires on the landscape, we’re kind of artificially making this forest older than maybe Mother Nature intended,” said Marc Parisien, a wildland fire scientist with Natural Resources Canada and one of the study’s authors. 

“So some of the communities have less fire, and therefore older forests, than would be dictated by nature, so where that leads us is the possibility of an increased fire risk.” 

Researchers call this the “fire paradox.” 

“The very activity designed to protect us may, in some sense, make things worse,” said Parisien.

Preventative measures

Of course, he said, extinguishing wildfires that threaten communities is “critically important,” but so is protecting people and property from forest fires that have yet to ignite. 

Preventative measures include controlled burns, cutting down problematic forests to allow for new growth, and retrofitting buildings to make them less flammable.

The very activity designed to protect us may, in some sense, make things worse.– Marc Parisien, wildland fire scientist

As climate change warms up the North, “everyone in Canada will have to get a lot more serious about wildland fire protection because the probability that a large fire will come close to your community — it’s unlikely to decrease,” said Parisien.

In some parts of the N.W.T., he said, the fire season is now two weeks longer than it was 50 or 60 years ago.

Parisien, who’s travelled to the Northwest Territories for work many times, said the territory’s wildfire officials are “very progressive” and welcome discussions about different approaches to fire management.

“It’s not all about fire suppression. In fact, people in the Northwest Territories know that intimately. You can’t put out every single fire. It’s impossible,” he said.

“The forest has co-evolved with fire forever, so there’s definitely a lot of thought up there about just finding a more holistic approach to living and working in these fire-prone landscapes.”