As we fight the Alberta and B.C. wildfires, we must also plan for future disasters
British Columbia and Alberta are on fire. Tens of thousands of people have had to evacuate in Alberta, while much of B.C. is already experiencing higher-than-usual wildfire risk. With more than 150 fires burning across the two provinces, a hazardous haze has been blanketing Calgary and affecting air quality as far away as the East Coast.
The average area burned by wildfires and the cost of suppression have grown steadily over the past 12 years, indicating increasingly larger and more intense wildfires. The 2017 fire season set the record for most hectares burned in B.C. It was surpassed in 2018. Three years later, a wildfire destroyed the town of Lytton, B.C. That season incurred the highest ever cost of fire suppression — $718 million.
Last year, B.C. adopted a year-round wildfire service in the hopes of mitigating wildfire risk through actions such as controlled burns, indicating a shift from a responsive mindset to a more proactive one. But as we look beyond the monumental task of reducing yearly fire losses, we come upon a much bigger question: How do we prepare for disasters whose timing is uncertain, like earthquakes, while also responding to immediate crises?
High-risk, high-uncertainty events like earthquakes tend to fall out of view when we are occupied with more predictable seasonal events like wildfires, which have very visible effects on our lives and the landscape right now. Our research suggests a critical need for integrated disaster governance and policy planning that considers the full range of risks, regardless of whether they are affecting us now or in the future.
The present bias
Research and life experience tells us that, as humans, we are good at focusing on immediate needs while pushing longer-term processes down the priority list until they gain urgency.
We tend to follow the same patterns when facing disasters. We are good at focusing on things that are on fire now, while being unable or unwilling to take on the long-term tasks that will keep other disasters from occurring in the first place. Studies in behavioural economics call this tendency to place a higher value on the current time “present bias.”
When applied to disaster planning, this means future preparedness and mitigation activities can face an uphill battle, even though spending slightly more in the present, for instance in constructing earthquake-safe buildings, may result in large future benefits.
These effects of present bias are a dilemma for disaster planning, as the vast majority of societal attention and resources are dedicated to moments in crisis, rather than to preventing crises.
Dealing with uncertainty
One way of dealing with uncertainty in disaster planning is shifting the ways that we think about the relationship disasters have with time. Adapting a phrase that anthropologist Stephanie Kane has applied to river courses, the potential for damaging earthquakes sits at “the precarious intersections of our historical and geological times.”
Geological time exists on a scale far exceeding human lifespans, but we encounter it through the hazards that affect our lives and homes in the present.
Major Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) earthquakes, for example, tend to occur along the West Coast in intervals of 200 to 600 years. Meanwhile, a combination of Indigenous oral histories, coastal ghost forests, and Japanese records of an orphan tsunami, show the last CSZ earthquake occurred on January 26, 1700. This is the moment that the CSZ’s geological process last intersected with historical time.
The next “Really Big One” or “Cascadia event,” could potentially cause thousands of deaths and displace upwards of a million people in B.C., Washington, and Oregon. Yet it still feels unreal, as it might happen tomorrow or long after we are dead.
A multi-hazard approach
Hazards like earthquakes, storms, and wildfires are part of the natural world but they don’t have to result in disasters.
Disasters occur when we are not prepared for the hazards that we know can happen, and their inequitable harms fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable members of our society. Multiple hazards can compound to create a multilayered disaster, like when extreme heat in B.C. coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer of 2021.
This is why we need to take on a “multi-hazard approach” to reducing disaster risk. A multi-hazard approach looks at the full range of possible hazards in relation to each other: fires, floods, extreme heat, pandemics, and earthquakes.
Sometimes these hazards are causally interconnected — for instance debris flows or landslides that occur in the wake of wildfire. But even when their onset is distinct, many of the strategies needed for responding to one can also be useful for responding to others, if the relevant agencies, governments and residents communicate efficiently to develop shared protocols.
The establishment of B.C.’s new Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness last year is a tacit acknowledgement that better co-ordination is needed to help mitigate the multiple hazards B.C. faces, especially as the climate crisis accelerates.
Keeping disaster knowledge present
While present crises may overshadow the past and limit considerations of the future, they can also inspire people to plan for future scenarios, for instance through earthquake modelling.
Keeping the knowledge of disaster present through cultural practice can act as a source of social cohesion. Our current understanding of the long-term earthquake risk in Cascadia is grounded as much in geotechnical analyses as it is in the intergenerational knowledge of the Indigenous peoples of the region.
Long before the last CSZ earthquake in 1700, First Nations have transmitted knowledge about earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as responses to them, through visual art, oral history, and dance. It is no surprise they are now at the forefront of forging strategies for coordinated disaster response.
Knowledge transmission requires communication and a desire for understanding shared experiences by those in the aftermath of a disaster and those yet to face one. This kind of society-building takes place through intergenerational, intercultural sharing, and community-making efforts by neighbours and policymakers who can see the value in the “soft” mitigation measures of relationship-building at the slow speed of trust.
After more than a hundred years of banned cultural burning, wildfires are more intense than ever. Rather than suppressing all fires, B.C.’s firefighting services are now learning to work with Indigenous people to manage fire as a part of a healthy ecosystem. This requires thinking in terms of the whole life cycle of the forest, rather than a single fire season.
A shift in how we think about time can help us avoid our present bias and be ready for the next big disaster.
Jonathan Eaton is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and Sara Shneiderman is an Associate Professor of the Anthropology Department and School of Public Policy & Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.