Science fails firefighters

A Canadian professor says the scientific community in Canada has failed the forest fire industry.

Dr. David Martell, from the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto, told the Wildland Fire Conference on Thursday that the scientific work done in Canada around forest fires is an embarrassment.

“The effort that has been devoted to fire-smarting communities not withstanding, I am more than a bit embarrassed by how little the Canadian scientific community has contributed to that aspect of our business. And I am even more concerned about our ability to do that in the future,” said Martell.

While his keynote presentation Thursday morning included the positive research work of scientists around the world, an ongoing theme throughout his presentation was the need for Canadian scientists to do more.

“Many researchers, myself included, are often quick to warn and preach doom and gloom. That we can expect to see more of these threats to communities in the future,” said Martell.

“I want to address what I consider to be a failure. The scientific community needs to respond adequately to the community-protection problem by sketching out some of the ways in which researches can contribute.”

He argued that far more work and research needs to be done on fire behaviour and fire management systems. He said most of the best studies on the subject in the world are done outside Canada.

“We, the scientific community, are not serving the fire management community well with our science,” said Martell. “The future does not look that good.”

Without a doubt, said Martell, scientists believe forest fires will get worse and increase in intensity and damage over time. This is due to the projected fuel build ups, growth of the the wildland urban interface, other demographic and land-use changes, climate change, insect infestations and fiscal challenges for fire management organizations.

He said more Canadian research needs to be done to ensure human lives and property stay safe, adding some interesting work has been done internationally.

One piece of research of particular interest to Martell is using the forestry industry to aid in fire-suppression efforts.

He argued that tactical clear-cutting, road work and forestry can actually "fire smart" the landscape. He says work can be done to integrate the need to reduce the flammability of the landscape with timber activities.

“Road constructions and cut-block locations can address both timber production needs and landscape management needs with respect to flammability,” said Martell. “It is a cool idea.”

He said scientists can work with the forestry industry to increase both the amount of wood they can take and conduct tactical fuel management to prevent forest fires in the future. 

Martell closed his talk by urging industry partners to work and invest in the research of wildfires, specifically fire behaviour and fire management systems.

“I believe we will be increasingly challenged by an inadequate investment in fire science in Canada.”

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