In The Wake Of The Fires

2015 was a bad year for wildfires.

The Western United States and Canada were ablaze. In Canada, wildfires burned almost double the usual average area. In some regions, the smoke made the air quality as bad as in the world’s most polluted cities.

One of the biggest fire-ravaged areas was in Northern Saskatchewan. At the height of the wildfires, thousands of people were evacuated with little advance notice from their homes, mostly from First Nation communities. It was the largest evacuation in Saskatchewan’s history.

The genesis for this series was a photo that my brother sent me of the burned remains of a cabin he and his family had vacationed in. Ironically, the stone fireplace was the only thing left standing, just a few feet from the lake. I had seen lots of images of the fires, but few showed the aftermath. I felt compelled to see the devastation for myself.

I flew to Saskatoon. My brother drove me four hours north to the town of La Ronge. On the way,  I saw the scorched land and charred remains of trees as we drove by Montreal Lake. It had been two months since the fires there were extinguished. We drove past miles of black trees by the highway that had been closed during the inferno. Charcoal-black carcasses were everywhere with waves of opportunistic purple fireweed dotting the bleak ashen ground. The wildfires had consumed everything in their path.

Intellectually, I understand that fires are good for the health of forests.  By allowing fires to burn, future fires are prevented.  It was still difficult for me to look at all the devastation. The large and intense wildfires with devastating impacts are now called megafires. They can permanently transform landscapes, incinerating the land and redefining the ecosystem. Trees take longer to regenerate and in some cases never grow back. Once rare, these massive fires are more intense, cover more ground and last longer.  Many scientists believe that they will likely become the new norm with global warming. More fires mean fewer trees and fewer trees means less ability to combat climate change. 

With climate change affecting the fire season, the age of the megafires has begun.