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VEZINA: How to fight fire with fire – literally

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Given the size of this year’s wildfire season across Canada, many are asking what can be done to prevent the widespread destruction it causes.

There are three broad categories of responses to wildfires.

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1. Things individuals can do.

2. Things governments can do.

3. Things humanity can do.

For individuals, preventing wildfires comes down to not starting them in the first place.

In some regions, human destruction and carelessness account for more than 85% of wildfires with causes ranging from cigarettes to untended or improperly extinguished campfires to arson.

That said, the belief that all fires are bad is harmful when taken to the extreme.

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When it comes to governments, there are two broad categories of things they can do that the public is generally familiar with: fire suppression and fire prevention.

Preventing massive wildfires often involves setting fires known as controlled or prescribed burns.

The basic idea is that pre-emptively burning patches of forest in the path of a wildfire means that when it arrives there will be little or nothing left to burn

Fire is actually a naturally occurring process in a healthy forest ecosystem. The goal is to control it.

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When parts of the forest floor grow old and dry out, they become ready sources of fuel for wildfires.

Burning these older patches in a controlled way reduces the ability of a wildfire to spread and creates more fertile soil in which new plants can grow.

A great deal of fire prevention and response comes down to a concept known as the “fire triangle.”

This refers to the fact that for a fire to start and continue burning, it requires three things: heat, fuel and oxygen.

Eliminate any one of the three and the fire will die out over time.

The concept of controlled burns has been around for a long time. Many of Canada’s first nations, for example, have skilled professionals in this area.

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Controlled burns can be fairly expensive because of the need for expert and trained personnel to carry them out safely.

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That said, the cost of doing nothing easily outweighs this expense, given the enormous amount of property damage that can be caused by wildfires racing through inhabited areas.

Some will argue for greater investment in fire responses centred around cutting off the oxygen and heat that fuels them.

The problem is that if the fuel wildfires consume is not controlled far in advance, they can quickly become too large and spread too fast for human intervention to counter.

At that point, the only solution is to let the fire burn until it consumes all of the available fuel and eventually burns itself out.

Obviously, homes built in fire prone areas should use fire-resistant materials in construction.

That, however, can be difficult because Canada is cold and making mass-produced residential buildings simultaneously inexpensive, warm and fire resistant can be challenging.

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Because of this, many buildings scrimp on insulation and fire-resistant materials in order to make them less expensive.

Finally, at the global level involving all of humanity, the fundamental issue comes down to climate change.

The hotter a climate becomes and the less it rains, the more likely forests will dry out and become more vulnerable to wildfires.

Wherever one stands on the issue of human-induced climate change, the fact remains that dry forests eventually burn regardless of human intervention to extinguish them.

In that context, while uncontrolled fires are dangerous and expensive, controlled fires set safely, following the advice of experts, can be a useful tool in fighting them.

– Alex Vezina, who is the CEO of Prepared Canada Corp. and teaches Disaster and Emergency Management at York University, can be reached at info@prepared.ca

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