For millennia, survival has been a hit-or-miss proposition. Accidents, plague and pestilence, social violence, natural catastrophes—all have threatened individual human lives and communities with paradoxically predictable irregularity.
In response, human ingenuity has invented safer products and processes, rules of the road, social hygiene and antibiotics, laws and moral codes, ambulances and fire alarms, and even weather forecasting and tsunami warnings. Not bad! But maybe not enough.
More recently, fire has re-emerged as a potentially unstoppable threat.
Past great city conflagrations like Chicago (1871) and London (1666) were terrible, but almost always resulted in rebuilding, with better fire safety embedded in safer materials and improved design.
And although there have been great wildfires in the past, it is only recently that wildfire incidence and severity have dramatically increased, not only in Canada, but around the world, even in the Arctic.
Heat from climate change has dramatically altered the combustibility of the world around us.
Earlier and higher summer temperatures, along with a longer season, dry out the landscape, whether it be grassland or boreal forest.
The combination of drying and hotter temperatures turns these fuel sources into a potent kindling that is simply waiting for a spark. What results may be a firestorm of incredible ferocity.
In a recent interview, Fire Weather author John Vaillant described how such wildfires spread at incredible speed.
The heat wave of perhaps more than 500 degrees Centigrade pushes out in advance of the actual fire, and rapidly parches the landscape ahead, so that when the ignition source reaches it, it virtually explodes into flame.
Vaillant explained how during the 2016 Fort McMurray fire a modern house would completely burn, leaving nothing behind but metal and concrete, in five minutes.
He described the evacuation of 88,000 people down a single access highway, without any deaths, as practically “a miracle.”
We in Terrace and the Northwest should be prepared for such a possibility.
True, our risk may be lower than some drier, hotter areas of the country.
We’re technically situated in a rainforest. But so were the wildfires in northern California and Oregon that wiped out several communities and blanketed smoke over large areas.
One need only glance up at Terrace Mountain to note the forest that descends to the east bench, and one can easily imagine the whole slope aflame. Terrace is surrounded by and composed of fuel.
Lightning strikes are a common source of wildfire ignition, but a majority of fires are started by human actions, everything from careless mistakes to arson. If a fire were to start nearby, how much response time would we have? Whose decision is it to order an evacuation, if needed? Where would people go?
What about hospital patients, or residents of care homes?
Do households and citizens have emergency kits containing critical belongings and information, such as property deeds, insurance information, a home inventory, necessary drugs, medical alert info, wills, passports, a change of clothing for each person, a first aid kit, some basic emergency rations?
We’re unused to feeling the need for such precautions, yet these may be precisely the preparations we need to be making.
Long a boy scout motto, “be prepared” should be a priority for all of us.