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Wildfires: Three Lessons in Resilience

May 06, 2016
Satyamoorthy Kabilan
National Security and Strategic Foresight

In 2015, I raised the issue of wildfires as being a major emergency management challenge in the coming years. This was after the devastation wrought during the 2015 wildfire season. I ensured that wildfires were featured as part of the Resilience 2016 conference that I co-chaired last week in Toronto, and I invited the U.S. Forest Service to provide a perspective on the Future of Wildland Fires.

From precipitation levels to the effects of El Niño, a number of factors indicated that the 2016 wildfire season could be even worse, and unfortunately, this seems to be the case. From Northern British Columbia to Fort McMurray in Alberta, the 2016 wildfire season has got off to an early and highly destructive start.

Based on the work that my team has done, the discussions we have had on this topic, and some of the coverage coming from the current wildfires, there are three key lessons in resilience that those faced with this threat should keep in mind:

1. Build Mutual Aid Agreements Near and Far

The 2015 wildfire season affected large swathes of both Canada and the United States. As a result, the normal mutual aid agreements between neighbours within Canada and across our borders could not be relied on—these partners were also fighting wildfires of their own. In the end, there was a reliance on fire fighters from across the globe, including New Zealand, Australia, and Mexico, to coming to the aid of some of Canada’s provinces. This challenge is being experienced during the current wildfires, as British Columbia may not be able to provide mutual aid to Alberta due to their own wildfire situation. We now have to think globally about mutual aid agreements, especially in wildfire situations, as our usual partners and neighbours may not be in a position to assist us.

2. Understand the Role and Restrictions of Military Deployment

The Canadian military has an outstanding reputation for assisting in civil emergencies, both in Canada and abroad. They also played a major role in Saskatchewan during the 2015 wildfire season, helping the province deal with the situation there. There is already talk about deploying the military to assist with the current situation in Alberta. It is important to understand that the Canadian Forces can bring a lot to bear when helping to deal with an emergency; however, they do have their legal limitations, as we highlighted in the 2013 Calgary Flood Response report. It is important to understand what the Canadian military can and cannot do to assist when deployed in a civil emergency.

3. Community Resilience Plays an Essential Role

From a broader emergency management perspective, the issue of community resilience is one that is constantly being debated. What was clear from many of the speakers at the Resilience 2016 conference last week was that community resilience played a key role in both the response to and recovery from a range of disasters, including wildfires. Some of the most heartening stories to come out of the current wildfires in Alberta are around the willingness of ordinary people to do what they can to help—opening up their homes and feeding evacuees. The ability of communities to help and provide aid, a form of spontaneous volunteerism, is an asset when dealing with far-reaching emergencies like wildfires. The challenge is to make sure that we support and enable those willing and able to play a role in building this community resilience.

I have been quoted many times as saying that no organization will be able to survive every major emergency it faces on its own. These three insights, from recent and past wildfires, emphasize the need to work with a broader set of stakeholders, from your neighbours to your fellow professionals oceans away, if we are to be more resilient to the effect of wildfires.

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