What happens when climate change-fueled wildfires meet COVID?

In mid-April, as BC was ramping up its response to COVID-19, a wildfire burned through more than 200 hectares north of Squamish, leading to the evacuation of about 30 homes. The evacuation was relatively small, and provincial and local emergency services seem to have worked well together to keep evacuees safe from both the virus and the fire.

Nonetheless, the Squamish fire raised important questions about how wildfires – and other climate-related impacts – intersect with the COVID-19 pandemic.

We cannot know, of course, whether the Squamish fire, which was likely human caused, was made worse by climate change. While it was early in the season and showed aggressive behaviour, it was certainly not unprecedented.

Moreover, there are many other factors that also increase the risks of forest fires in BC, such as the build-up of fuel in forests due to fire suppression and forest management policies, and forestry practices that kill deciduous trees which might act as a barrier to fires.

However, scientists tell us that the hotter, drier summers associated with climate change result in earlier, hotter and larger forest fires. One study from University of Victoria scientists found that BC’s devastating 2017 wildfires were between 7 and 11 times larger than they would have been without climate change.

BC’s Preliminary Climate Risk Assessment estimates that severe wildfire seasons (causing $1 billion or more in damages) will happen every 10 years or less on average by 2050. Before climate change, severe wildfire seasons like these were expected on average every 50 years.

The ebb and flow of COVID risk

I’ve been speaking to experts about wildfires on and off since mid-April – trying to understand what would happen if a bad wildfire year – similar to what we saw in 2017 and 2018 – intersected with the COVID-19 pandemic, making both more dangerous.

When I first began researching the post, the pandemic and social distancing were at their height. Since then BC seems to have done relatively well, and there is less sense that the COVID-related risks facing evacuees and emergency responders are unmanageable. We may be lucky – which would be wonderful.

However, the threat of COVID-19 and possible second (and third) waves are likely to be with us for some time, and Natural Resources Canada is predicting that the risk of wildfires in BC this year is “well above average.” Moreover, COVID-19 has already fundamentally changed how BC and wildfire-prone communities are preparing for this year’s fires.

Below, I share some of what I’ve learned about wildfire preparedness and COVID-19. And I do so with a cautionary note: this year it is more important than ever to prevent forest fires. In addition to the huge risks of wildfires at the best of times, wildfires this year risk creating new ways for COVID to spread, and they worsen the symptoms of anyone sick with the virus.

Fighting fires – Preparation and practice

I spoke with Claudia Cornwall, author of the upcoming book British Columbia in Flames, about what she thought COVID-19 would mean for fighting wildfires – especially if 2020 turned into a bad fire year. She emphasized that the pandemic has the potential to make a bad situation worse, by making it “that much more difficult to fight the fires.”

Fortunately, BC’s Wildfire Service has been thinking about these questions for a while now. The Service first signalled to the public that it was working on how to keep the province safe from wildfires during the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March. I was pleased to see that, because I was critical of the BC government for not doing to enough to keep flood-prone communities in the loop on plans for freshet risks during COVID-19.

The challenges facing the Wildfire Service as it ramped up to fight forest fires were formidable, requiring a major rethink of much of what the Service does. A good example, according to Jody Lucius of the BC Wildfire Service, is in training for new recruits.

In April the province would usually have run “New Recruit Boot Camp.” Over the course of three 1-week sessions, 200 would-be firefighters would be brought to Merritt and trained to use their equipment, keep themselves safe and work together to fight fires. Just as the Service was starting to think about this year’s recruitment, COVID-19 hit, which meant that bringing the new recruits together was a bad idea.

Lucius explains how they dealt with this problem:

Recognizing the COVID-19 situation this year, the need for social distancing, all of the other protocols that are in place… we’ve flipped boot camp around. New recruits are being assigned into regional placements based on information that they provide in a survey… And then the training will occur once they’re placed, in small groups. They’ll still receive the same training and be ready for the fire-line, but the training will be delivered differently to allow for social distancing and other guidelines to be more easily followed.

In some cases forest fire fighters are housed in camps – requiring similar types of precautions to what industrial camps are taking. In other cases the fire fighters are housed in communities, raising other concerns. Lucius emphasized the work that the Wildfire Service has done with the Provincial Health Officer to navigate these and other challenges.

Lucius acknowledged that the pandemic has changed some of what the forest fire fighters will do if and when fires happen – for example limiting how many fire fighters could be transported in a single vehicle. When it came to actually fighting the fires, however, she argued that the nature of the work would naturally keep social distance between members of a fire crew.

They’re outdoors and typically working on a reasonably large fire, so they can actually spread out on the actual fire line. And … they are working with sharp tools, like pulaskis and chain saws … [J]ust by the nature of those tools they have to spread out.

I asked Lucius what has been most challenging about dealing with COVID-19 alongside preparing for wildfires. She said that the changing information and uncertainty during what is already a busy time of year for the Wildfire Service has been challenging.

Just having to make decisions really quickly and realizing that the situation can change quite rapidly, so the decisions we make may need to be adjusted again. Assembling a team quickly to make those decisions and expedite that process, but then to be able to continue to manage that throughout the summer is going to be key to us.

Forest fire evacuations during a pandemic

The prospect of wildfires threatening homes and prompting large-scale evacuations during a pandemic is a particularly scary one. Evacuations are handled by Emergency Management BC, not the BC Wildfire Service.

In previous years evacuees have been processed in large groups and in some cases housed in gymnasiums. In 2017, the 65,000 people evacuated completely overwhelmed the available emergency housing.

Brian McNaughton, a Williams Lake resident, and forester, who was lucky enough to go straight to his sister’s house when he was evacuated in 2017, nonetheless recalls watching a “line of evacuees for days and days being processed.” Clearly COVID-19 requires that we do not bring large groups of people together for processing or housing.

Fortunately, the province has been preparing to deal with processing evacuees over the phone and online. The Squamish Wildfire provided a test run and emphasized the importance of increasing these efforts. Megan Latimer, Emergency Program Coordinator for the District of Squamish, who helped coordinate the evacuations, told me by email that:

We … asked evacuees to go directly to hotels, and worked closely with our partner the Canadian Red Cross to remotely register evacuees over the phone and provide them with access to groceries and clothing. … [Ensuring] that evacuee registration and referrals can be done digitally should be a top priority. This is something that was already planned for the District of Squamish this year, and we are working closely with Emergency Management BC and the Red Cross to make this happen.

Equally important is ensuring that evacuees have places to go and available resources. Latimer highlighted the support received from local hotels and other businesses and emphasized the importance of “maintaining good relationships with them and checking in regularly during the pandemic to understand their availability and operational status.” Coordination with health authorities and other regions also may allow evacuees to be safely housed outside of the immediate community.

Preparation is key. Latimer wrote:

Community evacuation planning is more important now than ever. Local governments should ensure that they have a good understanding of the demographics of different neighborhoods, transportation options, and where people will go during an evacuation – and then start adapting plans and including considerations for physical distancing and Provincial Health Officer Orders.

Brian McNaughton recalls how, in 2017, Emergency Services evacuated people in the hospital and senior care homes early – before an emergency was formally declared. How, he asks, is that going to work with social distancing?

“If you’re going to practice social distancing, how are you going to move that many people, how many buses or ambulances do you need?” Do you have hospital and assisted living facilities that you can move them to? “Maybe it’s not as simple as doubling people up in the next care facility in rooms. You’re going to have to find additional space.”

If the scale of evacuations overwhelms the existing options for housing, then shelters would need to be brought into play, and as Cornwall points out: “The shelters are not designed for keeping people at a social distance. They’d have to be redesigned.” If COVID-19 remains under control, then the transmission risks are probably manageable, but the potential for mass evacuations to spread the virus during an outbreak is truly scary.

The psychological trauma of evacuation is very real as well. McNaughton recalls the intense feelings of helplessness, not knowing whether his home was already going up in flames or not.

In the case of the Squamish fire, Latimer notes that:

People were already dealing with the stress of the impacts of the pandemic; the wildfire added another layer of trauma to this. We worked with the Province to ensure that all evacuees had access to counseling through the provincial Disaster Psychosocial Support team, which works to make local counseling services available to those affected by a disaster.

How British Columbians can prepare for the 2020 wildfire season

The fact that COVID-19 seems to have peaked in BC before this summer’s wildfire season is extremely fortunate. However, we must continue to be watchful and to plan for worst-case scenarios. In addition to the damage that might be caused by the wildfires themselves, and the potential for the spread of the virus, the smoke from a bad wildfire season would be likely to increase hospitalization and death rates among anyone who is sick with COVID.

The number one thing we can do is to prevent forest fires where possible. Lucius rattled off some of the basic precautions:

If you’re using a camp fire, making sure that it’s out. If you’re leaving it, fully out and cool to the touch. That it stays within the ½ metre by ½ metre area that a camp fire is defined as.

If you’re out with an ATV, you’re looking for any hotspots on the ATV and removing any flammable materials. Avoiding parking in tall, dry grass.

Those types of things can really assist us to make sure that our crew members are able to respond to naturally-caused wildfires, because we know we can’t always prevent those and they are going to happen.

Early on, the BC government banned most outdoor burning, in an effort both to reduce unnecessary smoke during the COVID pandemic, but also to prevent forest fires. Indeed, the fact that the Province even banned resource management fires, which are rarely banned, reflects the urgency of the situation.

The second thing that British Columbians who live in wildfire-prone regions can do is work to reduce the fire load of their homes and properties and prepare their houses to be wildfire resilient. This means reducing brush and other woody material that could burn, especially close to the house, and retrofitting buildings to be less likely to cause or be impacted by fires. FireSmart BC publishes a manual, FireSmart Begins at Home, that gives practical advice to people living in wildfire-prone areas.

People living in fire-prone areas need to plan ahead for what they would do if evacuation becomes necessary. McNaughton would tell his neighbours:

You’re living in a fire-based ecosystem. … Do your own evacuation plan and do it now. Don’t wait for the fires. I absolutely believe that everyone should have a Plan A of what they’re going to do if they have to evacuate because of the fires. It’s not that hard to do. I make sure my gas tank is more than ½ full. I make sure I know where I’m going to go, how I’m going to get there, what I’m going to take with me. There’s really good services in place. You print out a sheet. It’s all there.

Evacuee processing, Williams Lake - 2017 (Photo credit: Brian McNaughton)

The PreparedBC website has tonnes of information about preparing for a range of emergencies, including wildfires. As we have noted previously, there is not a lot of information about whether and how the COVID-19 pandemic changes how to prepare – but that should not stop us from getting ready.

Future wildfire seasons

Regardless of the pandemic, BC needs to do more to protect our communities from wildfires. Decades of forest management that has supressed fire, favoured less-fire-resilient species and increased fuel load on the forest floor are colliding with climate-fueled pine beetle infestations and drier summers. The result is bigger, hotter fires.

According to Cornwall, earlier investigations into wildfire risks (notably Hon. Gary Filmon’s Firestorm 2003 Report) identified many areas where brush and excess wood fuel should be burned or carted away, but only 8% of those areas were actually attended to by 2017. While more work has occurred since 2017, much remains to be done to reduce wildfire risks facing BC communities.

“It’s the whole management of the forest, it’s not something you can do a little bit for a month or two ahead of the fire season. It’s something that you really have to do for years,” Cornwall said.

McNaughton agreed that while steps have been taken, there is much more to be done to address the build-up of brush in wildfire-urban interface areas.

As the BC government invests in reopening the economy, wildfire risk reduction is a task in which the needs have been prioritized and the methods are well known. It should be a priority for investment.

In the longer run, the increased risks of climate change and forest fires raise significant questions about how we manage forests, particularly close to urban centres. Can we manage forests in ways that keep carbon in the soil? Can we thin trees in certain areas to prevent forest fires from spreading? Can we leave standing less-flammable but less commercially desirable tree species?

Stay safe during 2020 wildfire season

At the moment it seems possible that BC may escape having to deal with a really bad COVID-19 outbreak at the same time as wildfires. But it is critically important that we continue taking all steps to minimize the spread of the virus and to prevent forest fires. COVID-19 has already dramatically affected how we prepare for forest fires and those changes may be with us for some time.

More fundamentally, we can see that climate impacts are often most disruptive and dangerous in combination with other risks and disasters. Just as in 2017 and 2018, when some communities needed to deal with floods followed by wildfires, a bad wildfire year this year would be more stressful because we’ve already been through the fear and sheltering indoors inflicted on us by COVID-19.

No matter how things go this season, let’s do our best to stay safe and be kind.

Top photo credit: Brian McNaughton

Andrew Gage - Staff Lawyer