Canada’s Wildfires Are Out of Control Because of Cuts to Firefighting Budgets

As wildfires burn across Canada, the struggle to contain the damage has intensified for fire crews. The severe cuts to emergency fire services in recent years, driven by right-wing policies, have led to a failure to prepare for this crisis.

The ill-conceived cuts to emergency fire services have only exacerbated the challenges firefighters are facing in Canada as climate change causes ever more wildfires. (Lance McMillan / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Last week, as wildfires raged across Northern Ontario and smoke billowed south, fire crews struggled to contain the damage. Unfortunately, Canada’s right-wing provincial governments have failed to support these emergency workers in their crucial efforts due to cuts made to emergency fire services. As is so often the case, these cuts were driven by the Right’s relentless pursuit of “efficiencies” within provincial budgets.

In the eyes of Conservative provincial governments, emergency reserves are inefficient. That is, of course, until they’re desperately needed. The ill-conceived cuts to emergency fire services only exacerbated the challenges firefighters faced, further hindering their heroic efforts in battling the flames.

The Damage Done

Last week, across Canada, and much of the northeast United States, cities were surrounded by orange skies and apocalyptic plumes. Nova Scotia experienced a staggering escalation in its fire season. The record-breaking destruction of 3,390 hectares witnessed last year has been eclipsed by an even more devastating 22,000 hectares this year. In Quebec, over one hundred fires burned over 900,000 hectares. Ontario witnessed a significant surge in wildfires compared to the previous year. The number of wildfires doubled from 2022, while the area consumed by these fires soared from just over 2,000 hectares to a total of over 33,000 hectares. And, in Alberta and British Columbia, the fires have set new records. As the BBC observed: “Fires across Canada have already burned an area that’s 12 times the 10-year average for this time of year.”

All told, over one hundred thousand people have been forced to flee their homes. According to The Washington Post, should the fires continue to rage at their current pace the country will suffer the worst wildfire season in its recorded history and many more people will be displaced. “It is, in a word, sobering,” Canada’s natural resources minister Jonathan Wilkinson said.

In Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, the ministry of natural resources said, over the weekend, that there are sixty-eight wildfires burning across the north of the province. Evacuation orders have been issued across northern communities already and the anticipated rainfall, according to experts, is not expected to calm the fires.

Assigning Blame

Wildfires are stochastic — they are unpredictable and random. With forests covering roughly one-third of Canada’s landmass and a larger share of Ontario’s landmass, they happen and will continue to happen. But as climate change leads to increasingly hot and dry temperatures, they increase in frequency and intensity. As Nature summarized it recently: “Hot, dry weather and human carelessness have led to a huge burnt area — and to a choking haze that is affecting millions of people.”

Human carelessness often gives rise to wildfires, typically in the form of negligent campfires, smokers, and the like. Arguably, however, a much bigger factor in the recent spate of disastrous wildfires has been the utter carelessness of right-wing governments and the wealthy interests they represent.

Ontario’s premier, Doug Ford, blames campfires for the fire. But, as the opposition has noted, his government cut the province’s emergency firefighting budget by 67 percent — or $142.2 million in 2019 — and never restored the funding.

Ontario isn’t alone in this. In Alberta, cuts have been similar. The United Conservative Party government cut the wildfire budget from $130 million in 2018–19 to $100 million this year.

Even British Columbia’s nominally left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) government has been remiss in wildfire preparation. Although the government spent $801 million fighting forest fires in 2021’s summer wildfire emergency, this year the NDP budgeted only $32 million dollars for the permanent service.

Federally, too, budget cuts implemented by the 1990s Liberal government, as part of one of the deepest austerity programs in the industrialized world, also shrank the Canadian Forest Service’s staff size — from twenty-two hundred in the 1990s to seven hundred today. “People were mortified,” Edward Struzik, a fellow at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University, told the New York Times. “We have this situation that’s unfolding, this new fire paradigm, and the forest service’s just getting chump change to address it.”

All told, owing to past cuts, more than eleven hundred firefighters from around the world have been dispatched across Canada to help combat the country’s raging fire season. This including groups from France, Chile, Costa Rica, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Climate Change and Canada’s Forests

While the fires raged across Northern Ontario, forcing communities to evacuate, Ford denied any link between the crisis and climate change. “I’m actually in shock that the Leader of the Opposition is politicizing wildfires. It’s staggering, really,” Ford said. “But nothing surprises me with the opposition.”

Regardless of whether Ford acknowledges it, there exists a positive feedback loop between climate change and forest fires. Each fire releases the sequestered carbon from Canada’s vast forests, further exacerbating the impact of climate change.

Environment and Climate Change Canada have found that, from 2001–2016. Canada’s forests acted as “more as a source than a sink” of carbon. In British Columbia, the province’s extreme fire years, in 2017 and 2018 alone, each produced three times more greenhouse gases than all other sectors of the province combined.

“People sometimes say, ‘Is this the new normal?’ And the answer is unequivocally this is not the new normal,” says Werner Kurz, a senior research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service said. “We’re on a trajectory of continuously worsening situations due to climate change.”

“Our emission reduction targets literally go up in smoke as a result of these wildfires,” he warns.

Elsewhere, researchers have observed a concerning trend: fires are causing lasting impacts on the composition of Canada’s boreal forests. The destruction of black spruce trees through burning is hindering their ability to regenerate and recover. Increasingly, as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) put it, wildfires are transforming these winter forests into savannas, with huge implications for biodiversity and carbon storage.

Merritt Turetsky, director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado Boulder, told CBC News:

I would anticipate that what we’re seeing now is going to play out as really severe burning fires. […] We know that when a lot of organic matter — in the trees, but also on the ground in moss and peat layers — when a large amount of that is consumed during a fire, sites don’t regenerate back to what they were prior.

The Problem of Externalities

Ford’s failure to prepare Ontario for the current disaster is unsurprising. He is, after all, the same premier who vowed to do all he could to open up Ontario’s carbon-rich “Ring of Fire” — the mineral-rich peatland’s in the north of the province. Despite the sensitivity of the region, Ford is committed to developing it, vowing that, “If I have to hop on a bulldozer myself, we’re going to start building roads to the Ring of Fire.”

The premier has also worked with housing developers to expand construction into the province’s “greenbelt,” which serves as another massive carbon sink. In between, Ford has been actively cutting funding for health care, housing, and other vital social services, thereby increasing the vulnerability of working individuals and placing them at greater risk in the face of future crises.

The federal Liberal government, while paying lip service to the dangers of climate change, is little better in this regard. While doing all it can to greenwash its policies, for example, it has promoted massive offshore drilling projects, doled out ever-increasing subsidies to the country’s oil bosses and maintained roughly comparable cuts to federal emergency services.

In the lead up to the wildfires, Ford promised to find “efficiencies” in the public sector. In practice that has and will continue to mean cutting programs to reduce the “tax burden” on corporate profits. In the eyes of Ford and his party, it is too costly to maintain reserve funds “in case” of emergencies because those come at the expense of profit.

Notably, Ford has successfully garnered the support of the mining and construction industry leaders in the province. The shortsighted, profit-first calculus employed by Ford and his party jeopardizes the province’s ability to effectively respond to emergencies, such as the wildfires, leaving communities vulnerable and highlighting the prioritization of corporate interests over public welfare.

The urgency of combating wildfires in Canada necessitates a collective effort to challenge austerity measures and the erosion of essential public services, such as well-equipped and well-staffed firefighting teams and other emergency services. The preservation of robust public goods and community safety should take precedence over short-term gains. The last several weeks have vividly underscored the dire consequences that arise from neglecting these priorities, providing us with a stark glimpse into the potential nightmare that can ensue.