Edward Struzik's Firestorm is a "comprehensive and compelling" (Booklist) look at wildfires in the age of climate change. We sat down with Struik to talk about wildfire, first responders, and how megafires will shape our future. Have more questions for Struzik? Share them in the comments below.
Your last book, Future Arctic looked at how politics and climate change are altering the polar world. Why write a book about wildfires next? Is there any connection between the two topics?
The relationship between climate change and wildfire is very much like the relationship between climate change and the Arctic. Heat melts sea ice and glaciers just as fast, or faster, than it dries up a forest. That’s important to understand because the last decade has been the warmest on record. In addition to drying forests, hotter weather produces more lightning, which is responsible for most of the biggest wildfires that occur in North America. As a result of decades of aggressive firefighting efforts, there are also more mature trees covering the forest landscape. Tens of millions of these trees are dead or dying thanks to drought, and insects and disease that are the beneficiaries of the warming that is taking place. It all adds up to fires burning bigger, hotter, faster and more often. Coincidentally, black ash from these fires is falling on, and darkening glaciers and sea ice. Instead of reflecting heat from the sun, the dark ice is absorbing it, making them more susceptible to the warming that is taking place.
How do wildfires impact people who don’t live near forests? Why should they care about the increase in wildfire frequency and severity?
The best way to explain this is to describe what happened in the summer of 1950 when a massive wildfire in a remote area of northwestern Canada sent a plume of smoke to eastern Canada, the United States, and eventually to parts of Europe. It was not an alien invasion, a volcanic eruption, or an eclipse of the sun as many people suspected. But in places such as Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Fort Erie and many towns in New York state, it was so dark at midday that the lights at baseball fields had to be turned on to illuminate play on the field. The pall that the fire’s smoke cast over eastern North America generated so much public concern that the New York Times put the story on the front page. Without the internet and access to daily media reports, many New Yorkers didn’t know what to make of this event. One elderly man in the town of Busti, New York was so frazzled when a relative went in to check on him, he was shaking like a leaf. "Do you think this is the end of the world?" he asked.
This isn’t an isolated example. It’s taken decades for public health officials to fully appreciate that smoke from wildfires is as noxious as cigarette smoke, and that this smoke can travel long distances. A recent Yale University-led study predicts that by mid-century, 82 million people in the United States alone will be seriously affected by noxious smoke waves lasting more than a day. In 2002, smoke from wildfires in the province of Quebec resulted in a spike in the number of people in the northeastern part of the United States who had to be hospitalized because of respiratory problems. In 2004, smoke from fires in Alaska and western Canada resulted in ozone concentrations in Houston rising by 50 to 100 percent from already dangerous pre-existing levels. In 2012, people in the city of Salmon, Idaho were breathing in particulate matter from smoke that was eight times higher than what is considered safe. The Halmstead fire that caused this was more than 100 miles away.
You took many of the photos in Firestorm. How can photographs impact our understanding of how wildfires change landscapes over time?
It’s difficult to explain in words how much energy there is in a wildfire. Only a picture does it justice. Who can forget the images of hundreds of homes in Fort McMurray being burned to the ground, or of a helicopter carrying a water bucket looking like a speck against the backdrop of a giant plume of smoke? It’s hard to imagine a large tundra hill collapsing in a mud slide when heat from a wildfire melts the permafrost that holds it together, but photos give us some semblance of understanding. Photos are also an effective way of showing how quickly forests can recover from fire. While travelling through a part of Alaska that had recently burned, I ventured into a charred area and took photos of plants rising from a forest floor that was still smoldering in places. It was mesmerizing.
In the book, you relate fire to three other fundamental natural elements: water, earth, air. Can you explain briefly how wildfires impact each of these in unexpected ways?
As I pointed out, smoke from wildfire can seriously affect air quality in cities located hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away. The relationship between wildfire and watersheds is much more complex, with each affecting the other in ways we need to study more carefully. When the Hayman Fire removed thousands of trees from parts of Colorado’s mountain landscape in 2002, the soils in those denuded landscapes baked in the dry, hot drought conditions that followed. Some spring-fed streams stopped flowing. Chemical compounds that were vaporized by the fire got driven into the soil. As they condensed, they formed an impervious layer just below the surface. Hydrophobic is the word that geologists use to describe such soils.
Without trees, vegetation, and a stable soil structure to absorb the heavy rains that eventually followed in the denuded Rocky Mountain landscape, tons of ash, debris, heavy metals, and nutrients were flushed through the watershed that provides drinking water to 75 percent of the state’s residents. Hundreds of tons of sediment filled lakes and reservoirs. Intakes got clogged. Water quality suffered, not just for a few days, but for several years. The after-effects of the fire also led to the precipitous decline of the blue-ribbon South Platte River trout fishery, which was the best of any river in the United States within a one-hour drive of a city.
To find a solution, more than sixty scientists from various disciplines were brought in. Crews dredged out tens of thousands of tons of sediment. More than 175,000 trees were planted. Still, the drinking water quality problems persisted. Literally hundreds of communities are vulnerable to water and soil problems like these.
Firestorm focuses on wildfires from the United States and Canada. What lessons can be drawn from your book that extend beyond North America?
Wildfire is now a dominant force no matter where you live. Intense fires like we’ve seen in Fort McMurray and other parts of North America are burning in places all over the world. Chile, South Africa, New Zealand, and Portugal all had unprecedented fire events this year. Across the globe, these fires are going to get worse before they get better because of climate change and because more people are living, working and recreating in forest environments. Air and water quality will suffer. Homes and business will burn. People will die.
Other places can apply the lessons we’ve learned in North America: that wildfire and forest management has to evolve in scope and complexity, and it has to be shaped by public health officials, urban and rural planners, risk managers, forest hydrologists, as well as wildfire scientist and wildfire fighters. That being said, North Americans have a lot to learn from experts in places such as Australia, where reducing the risk of wildfire is, in some ways, years ahead. What we see happening now in our forests started happening well over a decade ago in their bushlands.
Media coverage often focuses on the economic costs of wildfires. Can you talk about the emotional impact of wildfires, for first responders and people whose communities are impacted?
In the aftermath of the Fort McMurray fire, many of the 88,000 people who were forced to flee chose not to return for psychological as well as economic reasons. Among those who did come back, more than 20,000 have sought some form of counselling. Some firefighters did as well. Darby Allen, the man who led the efforts to contain the fires in Fort McMurray had already planned on retiring but admitted that the emotional toll from that fire may have hastened his decision to call it quits. A few weeks after retiring, he admitted he said he was still plagued by guilt, not being able to save more homes. A church minister I profiled in the book told me that his parish saw a huge spike in the number of people attending services after the fire. Many of them had never given any serious thought of joining before the city burned. In his words, they were lost souls, looking for reassurance.
From your research, what will be the key to managing wildfires in the age of climate change?
Tom Zimmerman, the president of the International Association of Wildland Fire, said it best: “Business as usual is not going to be successful.” The rising cost of fighting fires in this age of climate change is increasingly taking money away from forest conservation programs. We need to invest much more in wildfire science, climate change adaptation, and in making forest communities more resilient to fire.
What in the course of researching and writing about megafires surprised or alarmed you the most?
Two things that stand out are how fast fire can move and how it can create its own weather. The Vega fire that burned in Alberta in 1968 set a record when it made a 40-mile run in just ten hours, while the Fort McMurray fire of 2016 unnerved scientists when a pyrocumulonimbus cloud that formed from the hot air triggered a lightning storm. That electrical storm ignited a cluster of new fires more than 20 miles away. No one in the world of wildfire science had ever seen anything like it.
Another thing that surprised me was how these intense fires can transform forest landscapes in very dramatic ways, especially when they recur before coniferous trees get a chance to mature. I personally saw, or was shown photos of fires that had burned so hot that almost nothing grew back. Vibrant spruce forests were turned into deserts. On the positive side, I learned wildfires can enhance habitat for grizzly bears, moose, elk, deer and many other animals because they give rise to a new crop of berries, roots, grasses, and aspen shoots that these animals feed on.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
Wildfire touches on nearly everything important to humans, on both a personal and a national level. Fire is an integral part of many ecosystems. We love the scenic beauty of towns like Whitefish, Montana, and Banff, Alberta. We need clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, both of which can be impacted by a vast wildfire. Without a new, evolving plan and the resources that are needed to deal with the new paradigm unfolding in the northern forests, year-round and runaway fire seasons will overtake our ability to manage forests in a way that serves our best interests.