Chairman's Desk

Canada’s forests are aflame. We need a national strategy to protect Canadians

The problem is so large, the smoke trails so horrifying, the devastation so vast, you can only truly grasp its enormity from space.

Our nation’s forest fires have released 290 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, according to the European Union’s Earth observation program. Not only does that represent more than double our previous annual record, it represents more than 25 per cent of the global total for 2023.

That’s what you call an emergency.

And it’s an emergency that’s only growing worse. To date, more than 5,000 wildfires have scorched the earth in all thirteen provinces and territories, consuming more than 3.5 million hectares along the way. More than 1,000 fires remain active with 660 burning “out of control.”

So as is blindingly obvious from the “code red” air quality alertsflights groundedand the serious health repercussions for all of us, this problem can no longer be dismissed as one only affecting small towns in the northern reaches of our country. No. This is a problem for all of us. And it’s high time we all did something about it.

Canada’s wildfires are here to stay. And that means our political leaders need to finally grow a backbone and implement a fully-funded national wildfire strategy.

While thousands of people are forced to evacuate their homes and lives are senselessly lost, our leaders have seemed content to sit back and watch our world burn, all while they play politics and shirk their responsibilities.

Justin Trudeau and the federal government need to step up and lead. They cannot continue to dawdle and dilly-dally while these wildfires rage. Canada’s wildfire season poses a genuine physical threat right now. The tragic losses and hardships that are impacting those Canadian communities affected by these infernos serve as a stark, daily reminder of the dire consequences of government inaction.

The solution? An urgent and immediate collaboration between provincial and federal governments which effectively addresses prevention, early detection, and firefighting strategies in an integrated fashion. By investing in robust firefighting resources, community preparedness, and sustainable forest management practices, we can start making a tangible difference.

The answer to this problem is to stop the fires before they start. There are not enough water bombers in the world to extinguish all the fires that are burning.

There are a number of mechanisms at our disposal to do so. Prescribed burns for example, deprive future wildfires of fuel by reducing the amount of underbrush and dead trees. It is this lack of proactive measures that should be utterly unacceptable to all Canadians. With less than 10 per cent of Canadian forests treated for wildfire risk, we are leaving our environment and communities vulnerable to inevitable disaster.

We need to look no further than to the significant role Indigenous communities can play in wildfire management and prevention. Indigenous peoples have lived in harmony with the land for millennia. They possess invaluable traditional knowledge and sustainable practices that can contribute to the development of the comprehensive national wildfire strategy we so desperately need.

The record-breaking global heat — last month was the hottest recorded — should serve as a wake-up call that this issue will not magically disappear. Inaction is no longer an option. The moment for bold and decisive action has arrived.

A comprehensive national wildfire strategy needs to put at its forefront the preservation of our environment and the safety of our citizens. We cannot allow our politicians to continue “fighting fires” with photo ops and generic tweets while our forests burn and lives are upended.

We simply must act decisively to protect our natural heritage, mitigate the impacts of climate change-related disasters, and safeguard our communities. Only through concerted effort and comprehensive planning can we hope to overcome this growing threat and build a resilient and sustainable future for all Canadians.

There can no longer be any excuses.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on August 6, 2023.

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