“All the country around us is on fire”

Group of fire fighters from High Country Forest and Fire backburning and clearing forest to prevent the spread of forest fire. Source: Library and Archives Canada, 3603846.

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Forest Fire at Grand Rapids Alberta, 1921. Source: Library and Archives Canada, 3364064.
Forest Fire at Grand Rapids Alberta, 1921. Source: Library and Archives Canada, 3364064.

In August of 1823, fur trader James Birnie noted in the Spokane House post journal, “All the country around us is on fire.”[1] Several days later, the journal entry claimed that “[t]he weather has been overcast the most part of the day, but more from the smoke of the fire in the woods around us than from the atmosphere.”[2] Forest fires are an annual event in the North American interior. Indigenous peoples share stories of fire and forest fires from centuries past, and European newcomers to the continent like James Birnie left records observing the seasonal phenomenon. American and Canadian governments prepare for the season with professional forest firefighters and substantial investments in equipment, and Indigenous communities have their own firefighting departments to specifically address forest fires, which often threaten isolated reserves and reservations. In the late summer every year, interior North Americans experience the burning eyes, stinging throat, and tightness in the chest that accompanies breathing smoke-saturated air. This year and last, however, stand out from years past. There have been more fires that burn with increased ferocity, set alight larger forested areas, consuming resources and endangering more people. Why?

Forest fires in Saskatchewan began raging in June this year, ahead of when they usually occur and in larger proportions. By the end of the month, 115 fires were actively burning in Saskatchewan, sending enormous smoke plumes across Canada and the United States. Fires in Alberta, where portions of Jasper National Park burned and firefighters from South Africa aided in battling blazes near Edmonton, contributed to the plumes from neighbouring Saskatchewan. On August 18, there were more than 100 fires burning south of the border, in Montana. And in southeastern British Columbia and northeastern Washington, near Spokane House and where nearly two hundred years ago James Birnie observed the forest burning, fires have incinerated the forests for nearly three months. In the Okanagan Valley, thousands of hectares have burned and the provincial government had overspent its firefighting budget by more than $135 million by mid-August. In Spokane, Washington, south of the Okanagan, forest fires have rendered the air quality as dangerous to humans as it was following the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980.

Remains of a home after forest fire, Kelowna, 2003. Source: Library and Archives Canada, 3603845.
Remains of a home after forest fire, Kelowna, 2003. Source: Library and Archives Canada, 3603845.

In the process of trying to understand the history of forest fires in North America, I looked to the voluminous work of Stephen J. Pyne, who began his career as a forest firefighter. I’m still reading. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of fire, Pyne is an incredible resource and well worth the time investment. His Fire: A Brief History is an excellent place to start; it examines the relationship between people and fire. I left it understanding more about why fires are burning the way they have been recently (human attempts to suppress fire are part of the answer), but still wondering why the catastrophic increase in intensity that we’ve seen in 2014 and 2015 has occurred.

On the website Historical Climatology, the ties between climate change, drought, and fires are made clear in posts about the multitudinous effects of Earth’s changing climate. Groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Wildlife Federation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have outlined the ways in which human-induced climate change has brought about factors, including prolonged drought, that contribute to increasingly severe fire seasons. In July, B.C. premier Christy Clark suggested that climate change is partially responsible for the increasingly severe wildfire seasons and that humans should approach such seasons as a new normal. Are recent fire seasons caused by climate change, then? I think a better understanding of our current smoky situation is best found with a combination of historical and climatological analysis.

It is important to understand how climate change is creating the wildfire conditions of this year and last, including drought, which turns undergrowth into kindling; less snowpack and earlier melting, which reduces moisture in the soil and flora; and changing wind patterns and intensity, which make fires more severe, less predictable, and far more dangerous for firefighters. It is also crucial to understand how we have contributed to the existing forest fire conditions through forest management, infrastructure creation, and viewing forests as recreational resources, rather than living ecosystems that routinely experienced fire for millennia. This is where historians of fire and forestry as so very important, and the work of Pyne, Richard A. Rajala, and others who have tackled the history of wildfire in North America and beyond are valuable resources. Trying to trace change over time with regard to wildfire in Canada is a bit tricky for the twenty-first century, but it is possible. Natural Resources Canada created a Canadian National Fire Database, which tracked fires throughout the country, but the data on the website is only current to 2012. It is unclear if the site is outdated due to funding constraints or political reasons, but provinces and the media have documented fires well and they are trackable.

View from McCulloch Road in Kelowna, BC of the approaching Okanagan Mountain forest fire of 2003. Source: Library and Archives Canada, 206922.
View from McCulloch Road in Kelowna, BC of the approaching Okanagan Mountain forest fire of 2003. Source: Library and Archives Canada, 206922.

Nineteenth-century fur traders experienced smoke from fires in the Columbia River Plateau and they have been well documented since. In 2015, as in 1823, “[a]ll the country around us is on fire” and we are responsible for the increasing intensity and destruction of those fires, through both human-induced climate change and the ways in which we engage with forested areas of the continent.

[1] “Spokane District Journal from the 15th April 1822 to the 20th April 1823.” Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba, B.208/a/1, microfilm no. 1M144

[2] Ibid.

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Stacy Nation-Knapper is Director of Year One Programs at Rochester Institute of Technology, where she teaches in the History and Sociology & Anthropology departments. Her research focuses on the memory and commemoration of the North American fur trade.

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