Fire Break? Environmental History and the 2019 Wildfire Season

British Columbia Forest Service, "Avenger Dropping Bentonite," 1962, Royal Archives of British Columbia Digital Collection, Item NA-21128.

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This spring western Canada braced for another wildfire season. The past two years have broken historic records for wildfire and smoke in terms of length, intensity, and hectares burned. British Columbia took the brunt of the damage, but the effects were felt across the entire nation. Many Canadians lived under apocalyptic orange skies for weeks. We introduced a new term to our vernacular: “smoke seasons,” and people spoke openly about their place in our climate future.

By contrast, the 2019 the wildfire season never seemed to arrive.[1] As the wildfire season comes to an official close this October, provincial statistics start to tell the story. In 2018, for example, British Columbia experienced 2,117 total fires burning 1,354,284 hectares. By contrast in 2019 the province faced 793 fires burning 20,951 hectares (as of writing) – below average even for a normal year.

In this reprieve, communities are rebuilding, firefighters resting, and governments re-stocking their coffers. Historians, meanwhile, might take a moment to reflect. How can the past help us to understand the vagrancies of our modern fire landscapes?

Wildfire history does not suffer from a lack of scholarly attention. The subject’s contemporary relevance, narrative drama, and rich archival record has attracted a number of talented young scholars while established voices continue to update old work for the present. Fire history has an obvious place in environmental history — yet it occasionally seems sequestered from broader trajectories within the discipline. The nature of the 2019 fire season, with all its unevenness, speaks to themes in environmental history less frequently recruited in our explanations of fire’s past.

The first lesson? Where there’s fire…there’s smoke. While the drama of actual fire has attracted the bulk of our attention, recent events suggest that the slower and more insidious impacts of wildfire are also worth examination. Even after the flames are extinguished, smoke and ash remain. Carried by unpredictable wind and precipitation, they have little reverence for our social, political, and economic boundaries.

In 2018 smoke from Canadian wildfires settled in Antarctic and glacial ice, it blacked the snow and accelerated already rapid melt rates.[2] Particulate drifted from fires in northwestern Canada into northern Europe.[3] In Metro Vancouver, an air quality warning due to wildfire smoke lasted a record twenty-two days.

A preliminary examination of the evidence suggests that while the scale and intensity is new, the phenomenon of transient smoke is not. Smoke has regularly been a public health hazard and economic problem. In the clips below, one municipality used its smoke-free status as an incentive for tourism (1938). In other places in the documentary evidence, smoke temporarily halted shipping in Vancouver (1906) and left ashes scattered on Victoria streets (1984).

The experience of breathing in smoke physically connects urban populations to distant bush. This connection is uncomfortable. It defies our expectations for our environment. As we saw this summer, it restricts movement, hurts economies, and interjects itself into our human relationships. There is room here to build on the work of sensory history to understand the corporeal experience of smoke and fire, and how it has changed over time. Ela Miljkovic recently reflected on some of the possibilities in her piece on air pollution for this blog.

Given the lasting impacts of smoke and ash, I wonder if there is room for thinking about wildfire and its impacts of a form of slow violence. The argument becomes especially compelling when we consider the fact that the impact of wildfire falls disproportionately on rural and indigenous people, exacerbating the effects of colonialism.

The Daily Colonist, 8 August 1979

In addition to bearing the weight of wildfire’s consequences, rural and indigenous people also may bear the weight of the blame. A certain amount of moralism surrounds wildfire, especially in conversation around causation.[4] We can see this in conversations surrounding wildfire and its causes. Indigenous people were consistently blamed for wildfires in British Columbia over the course of the twentieth century.

Annual Report of the Ministry of Forests (British Columbia), 1915, p. 48

This kind of blame occurred despite the fact that the Forestry sector regularly used indigenous people as forest fire fighters in the twentieth century. The annual reports from British Columbia also contain complaints that fire crews disbanded during the peak of the season to participate in summer stampedes.

Finally, while 2019 was a relatively quiet year for wildfire and smoke in most of Canada, those in the Yukon might see things differently. This past summer was one of the Yukon’s worst ever fire years, but environmental factors meant that we did not see the same among of transient smoke as we did in 2018. At the same time, Brazil is in the midst of a devastating wildfire season that has already burned more than 2 million acres and has been rhetorically linked to indigenous agricultural practices. There are a number of social, political, and economic structures at play in our relative attention to wildfire events. Here as elsewhere there may be patterns worth historical analysis. The familiarity of this 1963 headline begs questions about the way fire stories are communicated and told across international borders.

The British Colonist, 7 September 1963

Thus, a preliminary reflection suggests ways Environmental history might help us to think through a future defined by fire. To avoid reproducing structural inequalities related to wildfire and smoke we need responsive history that looks across borders and pays attention to the interplay between environment and justice.

For most of us, the 2019 wildfire season (or lack thereof) has been something of a relief. As we look ahead, it is worth thinking ahead to how environmental historians can productively inform a future where “quiet” years like this one are increasingly rare.

[1] National statistics are not out yet. When they are, they will be HERE.
[2] Ben Pelto, Brian Menounos, and Shawn Marshall, “Multi-year Evaluation of Airborne Geodetic Surveys to Estimate Seasonal Mass Balance, Columbia and Rocky Mountains Canada,” Cryosphere Discussions 2019; Yongwon Kim, Hiroaki Hatsushik, Reginald R. Muskett, and Koji Yamazakic, “Possible Effect of Boreal Wildfire Soot on Arctic Sea Ice and Alaska Glaciers,” Atmospheric Environment 39, no. 19 (2005): 3513-20.
[3] Albern Ansmann, et. al., “Extreme levels of Canadian wildfire smoke in the stratosphere over central Europe on 21-22 August 2017,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 18 (2018), 11831-11845.
[4] For a discussion on moralism and wildfire causation, see Bed Bradley’s discussion of the Manning Park Gallows in British Columbia by Road: Car Culture and the Making of a Modern Landscape (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017), 44.

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Mica Jorgenson is an environmental historian of natural resources in Canada. She works in both the academic and public sectors, and teaches periodically at the University of Northern British Columbia.

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