Wild Smoke: Forest Fires and Air Pollution in BC since 1950

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This is a crosspost with the Whitehorse Press Blog. It introduces a new environmental history article “Wild Smoke: Managing Forest Pollution in Northern British Columbia since 1950,recently out with Environment and History.

“A bank of pale gray smoke pours into the bay from the north and rolls over the water, engulfing the freighters in billowing smog like a slow motion tsunami. Foghorns echo down the inlet. White vaporous clouds drift into the city, floating between the downtown towers.”

Alex Grünenfelder, “Air Tasting,” 19 October 2022, 14:50–15:30, Second Beach, West End, Vancouver, Canada.

At regular intervals throughout the year, Alex Grünenfelder stands out on his Vancouver balcony, tastes the air, and then tweets about it. In summer, his tastings often include smoky notes. “A thin vaporous smoke, mildly sulphurous and metallic, twists through a steady background of resinous oaky foliage,” he wrote in June, 2022. In September, 2020: “The smellscape…opens with a metallic fragrance of wet flaked rust, subway exhaust and cold dust, with mild sulphurous notes like a distant pulp mill or smoky factory.”1

Grünenfelder’s air tasting work formalises a sensory experience growing more common in the twenty-first century. As the climate changes, smoke has become the medium through which most people experience worsening wildfire regimes. In urban spaces like Vancouver people are unlikely to evacuate from an advancing flame front. Yet the city’s roughly 2.5 million population still senses a changing climate through their bodies — the heat of the air on their skin and the smell of smoke in their noses.

Although wildfire regimes have unquestionably worsened in the twenty-first century, wildfire smoke has been drifting past our noses since at least the end of the last ice age. It has come to occupy an awkward place in our collective psyche. It is undoubtedly pollution. Every summer, air quality warnings from drifting forest fire smoke cancels events and forces people indoors. Air purifiers disappear from store inventories. Although encounters with smoke might feel less risky than heroic battles with a flame front, the impacts of breathing it in should not be underestimated. Every year it kills hundreds of thousands of people and impacts millions more. It contains unpredictable collections of toxins that are difficult to quantify or trace. 

Smoke rises from a fire in southern BC, 2017. Used with permission.

In Canada and elsewhere we fought difficult battles to achieve clear air in urban spaces. Early anti-air pollution movements in nineteenth century Europe were eventually adopted in North America and were amplified, in the 1970s, by environmentalism. Polluting industries were forced to alter their practices and devise new technologies that did not impose on our senses as they had before. By the end of the twentieth century, the right to clean air was widely accepted and institutionalized through Clean Air Acts on both sides of the Atlantic — although their benefits would remain dubious for some communities, especially racialized, rural, and otherwise marginalized ones. Yet if pollution slowly became less “sensible,” over time the release of carbon continued. As our climate has become warmer, dryer, and more volatile in response, smoke has returned to urban spaces. Unlike a factory, wildfires cannot be fined, regulated, or technologically fixed. The pollution problem created by wildfire smoke has thus far largely been described as a natural disaster beyond the control of regulatory regimes.

The BC Forest Service worked hard to teach urban residents that they had a stake in distant forest fires. Ad from the Vancouver Sun, 30 June, 1951.

I wrote “Wild Smoke” to understand how our relationship with smoke on the wind has changed over time. I chose to use British Columbia (BC) as a case study because of its long history of crown ownership, which has created a relatively long and consistent record of wildfire management. Telling the story of smoke proved an exercise rife with rhetorical pitfalls.  Considering the role of the timber industry, colonisation, and suppression policy in creating worsening fire regimes in the province, how wild are wildfires really? Could we think of smoke from the forests in the same way that we thought about coal smoke? How are the harms associated with wildfire smoke entangled with colonialism? How have its origins (outside of cities) changed the way we engaged with it?

 As I traced the ways that wildfire smoke and other kinds of air pollution drifted together and apart through the decades, it became clear that its nature was always up for debate. Over time, British Columbians questioned assertions that smoke from the forest was ungovernable. A slash burn used to remove waste fuels from cut blocks was not a wildfire. A lightning strike that burned a hundred hectares of good timber on the other hand clearly was. But what about a lightning strike that was allowed to burn because it prepared a block for replanting? In BC, categories of forest fires and their pollution were not always obvious or implicit. They were, and continue to be, negotiated.

A helicopter torch used to prepare a clear cut for replanting. ForesTalk Magazine, Summer 1981, p. 26.

I found that our perceptions of forest smoke were powerfully shaped by the rising power of the environmental movement. The Forest Service convincingly aligned its firefighting work with “green” initiatives. Widespread fire suppression campaigns, common all over the world during this period, witnessed the pathologization of wildfire as the enemy of scientific management. In BC, suppression messaging lined up neatly with anti-air-pollution rhetoric. The combination created an intolerance for atmospheric smoke of any kind. Smoke drifted in and out of environmentalism, air pollution campaigns, scientific forestry, and perceptions of nature.

Wildfire smoke’s ephemerality made it a difficult ally. Although the BC Forest Service ostensibly benefited from the perception of its firefighting work as environmentally enlightened, it also found itself increasingly forced to justify its own burning work. An environmentally conscientious public was disinclined to accept the Forest Service’s assertion that everyone else’s burning activities constituted an existential threat, while the Ministry’s own burning activities (necessary for hazard reduction and replanting work) constituted enlightened ecological practice. Implicit in these critiques was our habitual and growing distrust in the power of the timber industry. Partly because of the success of suppression messaging and partly because of the rise of clean air initiatives, environmentalists connected the smoke they saw rising from the woods to industrial exploitation rather than ecologically-minded wildfire management, and tended not to distinguish between intentionally lit fires and those ignited accidentally.

Attempts to make suppression icons like Smokey the Bear more nuanced met with little success in the 1970s and 1980s among a public that had learned to revile forest fire. ForesTalk, summer, 1981, p. 24

The legacies of this history remain with us today. The BC Forest Service (now the Ministry of Forests) wants to expand prescribed and cultural burning programs in the province. Prescribed fire promises that small, controlled amounts of smoke now can help alleviate large uncontrolled plumes in the future. Even better, it promises to put land management back in the hands of indigenous firekeepers, a goal that aligns with the Province’s stated commitment to reconciliation. Yet practitioners continue to face legal and bureaucratic barriers to burning, and escaped burns result in strong public and regulatory backlash. In the aftermath of an escape in New Mexico last year, the U.S. Forest Service announced a 90-day pause of prescribed fire operations, putting an end to critical fuel reduction work on National Forest Lands in the middle of the spring burning season.2 Although such escapes are rare, they experience disproportionate rhetorical power in a culture that has learned complete intolerance for smoky skies.

The Ministry of Forests in BC is on the right track. Mitigating the harms of climate change means doing more burning on the land – especially in the spring and fall, and especially near to communities where the danger posed by accumulated fuels is most pressing. It is almost spring in the northern hemisphere, and as the snow begins to retreat the burning season will begin. Spring burns are the kind that reduce the risk later in the wildfire season, and they might mean the difference between survival and annihilation for rural communities.

Now the smoke is rolling back into our lives, we need to develop a more sophisticated smoke palate. One way or another, we are going to be breathing more. BC’s history suggests that questioning smoke’s presence in our lives is a useful exercise as we continue to push regulators to use fire in ways that reduce harm, rather than exacerbate it.  We should not accept the return of air pollution, but we also must learn to tell the difference between smoke that harms our communities and smoke that makes us more resilient. 

Distant figures burn dry spring grass in BC’s central interior. Used with permission.

Research for this project was funded by  an EU Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Action.

Feature image: Slash smoke rising over Quesnel lake, spring 2023. Photo by author.


1 “The Government Set a Colossal Wildfire. What are the Victims Owed?” New York Times, 21 June 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/21/us/new-mexico-wildfire-forest-service.html

2 Alex’s air reports are archived at http://airtasting.com/.

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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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