Dried out echinacea flower.

Heat Waves vs Wildfires: Responding to climate change may require choosing between completely opposite actions (Who knew?)

Do you prefer to cook or burn?

Like thousands of other people in the southern interior of British Columbia, and across the Pacific Northwest, I have just been through the worst summer of my life.  Starting with the unprecedented “Heat Dome” in late June, the summer went from bad to worse as huge wildfires erupted and aggressively burned across the landscape. 

The heat, the smoke, and the constant anxiety of wondering if (when?) evacuation would become necessary left me checking the weather, fire and lightning reports multiple times each day.  I slept with my cell phone, landline and iPad beside my bed in case the emergency call came during the night (again) hoping that one device or the other would wake me.  But who really sleeps at times like these? 

To add to the frustration, the extreme heat threatened my food production plans for the year, causing damage to plants, disrupting growth patterns, altering ripening and fruit drop, and even killing some of my young poultry.  This has added to the stress, given drought conditions across Canada mean that food prices and livestock feed will be really expensive this winter.

I thought I understood what climate change would mean for my area and how I could probably respond to it.  But the summer of 2021 has revealed some new conflicting issues that are going to be extremely challenging to resolve. 

What do you do when the actions you need to take to respond to a heat wave are in complete conflict with the actions you need to take to stay safe from a wildfire? 

Responding to a Heat Wave

The Heat Dome caught most British Columbians unaware and unprepared.  Warnings of the impending heat were not strong enough to prevent the deaths of some 570 people in BC who didn’t realize just how different this heat really was.  

My own experience was so surprising that I had to put together the data for my area to see for myself just how “off-the-charts” the Heat Dome effect was here.

Many homes simply act like pressure cookers during extreme heat, accumulating heat that cannot easily be dispersed.  My own home never dropped below 30C even at night, and I have partial shade here.

One the best ways to reduce the impacts of heat over the long term is to plant more trees.  Recent studies have shown that tree cover can reduce daytime temperatures by as much as 5.6 C (10 F). This makes trees amazing assets  in the fight against climate change. 

Trees along the street shade people
Trees reduce the heat on the street (Photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash)

By simply growing, trees take carbon dioxide out of the air and lock it into their wood, leaves and roots.   And by simply growing, trees create shade that can cause a measurable drop in local temperature.

The more trees you have, the deeper the shade you can create which can effectively reduce the impacts of a heat wave.  The concept of creating “cooling forests” to naturally bring down the temperature is a viable long term solution to the crushing heat waves predicted to come.

Trees are a climate change Win-Win-Win:  Less heat in your home, less energy needed for cooling, and carbon sequestration all in one green leafy package.

But there is an apparent catch. . . . .

Responding to Wildfire

The wildfire season of 2021 is record breaking.  Huge, aggressive wildfires have ravaged entire communities and will leave thousands of people without homes and thousands of hectares burned to a crisp.  The true impact of these losses will only be felt in years to come.

As the rains and snows come, many areas will now be at risk for landslides because there is no plant life to hold back the soil.  Erosion will damage streams and rivers, impacting fish and aquatic life. It will take years to build back the homes and businesses lost.

And many expect that this heat dome was not an anomaly but will be a repeat performance in years to come . . . . . meaning re-establishing tiny young trees to regrow those forests will be a significant challenge.  The small trees are especially vulnerable to heat and drought.  In some cases it may be impossible to initiate re-growth with native trees species.

Tree skeletons burned by a wildfire
Wildfire devastation (Photo by Intricate Explorer on Unsplash)

The economic impacts of a summer spent fleeing from, or worrying about fleeing from, wildfires will be felt long after the fires have been put out.  The emotional and psychological toll of these fires will affect many people for years to come.  Calls for action to prevent wildfires are filled with passion and concern.

What are the recommended actions to prevent wildfire?

Aside from the obvious controls on human behaviors that cause unintended fires, there are steps recommended for reducing the risk to homes and structures.  These involve removing combustibles – including TREES and shrubs – from the vicinity of your home.

FIreSmart Action slide showing how far a house should be from the forest.  Links to a video.
https://firesmartbc.ca/resource/lfr-workshop-module-4/

This means cutting down existing trees – lots of them – to create more open space around homes.   That’s right, those very trees we so desperately need more of to shade.

How can preventing one nightmare disaster throw us under the bus for another? 

How can creating a living, shaded environment where we have a chance to survive heat waves mean we might burn up in a wildfire?

Cook or Burn?  You only get to pick one.

So how do we choose?   How do we choose between two completely opposite and valid responses to climate change?

Survive a Heat Wave:  Plant LOTS of trees and create shade/sequester carbon

vs

Survive a Wildfire: Cut Down and cut back the trees in case they shed embers on your home

The choice quite literally comes down to cook or burn. Neither one sounds appealing. 

Because the economics of wildfires are so easy to measure and quantify, you can be sure that wildfire proofing of communities is going to get a lot of air time, even though it does little in the wake of rank 6 wildfires raging during 40C weather.  These wildfires require massive fireguards, not minor clearing on individual homes.

Is the best option really to reduce the shade on our homes? The loss of trees goes well beyond shade, including wildlife habitat and carbon sequestration, but these factors are so much harder to quantify and monetize. How will these things be factored into the decision-making?

There is NO CONVERSATION happening in BC right now (or elsewhere?) that is talking about weighing the social, environmental and economic impacts of keeping shade vs fire-proofing.

The realization that acting on climate change may force us to choose between suffering the least of many severe impacts is only just dawning. You may find yourself having to choose on your own.

Woman standing viewing a forest
Heat waves say keep the trees while wildfire threats say take much of it down (Photo by Nick Linnen on Unsplash)

Eyes Wide Open

I am not here to tell you what to do. I am struggling with this very dilemma on my beautiful old farm that has amazing old trees. 

I chose to live here precisely BECAUSE of those old trees.  They provide habitat to some of the most amazing creatures that share this land with me.  They provide refuge for migrating birds who come by to use my shaded fountain and pond.  They provide nesting sites and hunting grounds.  And they provide shade and oxygen.  

I cannot imagine how hot my home would become if I cut down my big trees.  It would be unbearable.  I would be forced to install air conditioning and pay the ever-increasing costs of hydro electricity.  But my trees provide shade for free!   A few more strategically placed trees and I can effectively lower my house temperature and reduce the impacts of future heat waves.

I need more trees to live here long term not less. . .  . .unless there is a fire. The wildfires of 2021 have been terrifying to witness.

And this is now a dilemma faced throughout the world . . . .shade trees vs fire proofing.  There may not be a happy ending regardless of the choice made.

The summer of 2021 has just shown us that choosing the “right” climate change action may be a whole lot more complicated than we thought. We need to start talking about balancing the risks now.


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