Fire and our Communities: Strategies for Adaptation

Aerial image of residential development near woodlands.
Lian Vroege

October 5, 2023

Image credit: Google Maps, accessed on October 4, 2023.

Background: Fire in Atlantic Canada

Fire is and has been a natural part of forest ecosystems across Canada. While it is more common in the western and central parts of the country, fire has also historically regulated ecosystems in Atlantic Canada, particularly before European settlers arrived. Over the past century, however, it has been common practice in Canada to suppress all fires. Changes in vegetation structure over time due to fire suppression, non-Indigenous forest management, and destructive storms have resulted in forests that are prone to more severe and disastrous fires. Now, climate change is exacerbating this trend as heat and drought become more common. Droughts allow fires to burn more easily as vegetation, dead wood, and organic matter are dried out.

As wildfire risk increases over time, many municipalities continue to sprawl into natural areas. These areas – such as the subdivisions of Upper Tantallon, NS – can be particularly vulnerable to wildfires because of how they mix with natural woodlands.

Strategies to protect these communities from fires often require modifications to the environment, which can be harmful to ecosystem resilience. One way municipalities could reduce these impacts and provide better fire protection is by changing their approach to land development and future growth.

Adapting at-risk neighbourhoods: Strategies and issues

Some of the research and expertise on planning for wildfire adaptation recommends proactively designing communities with firebreaks. These are typically linear corridors where vegetation is cleared to reduce fire spread. Specific suggestions include clearing wooded areas for golf courses, big box stores, and roads – even setting minimum road widths. These methods suggest removing parts of forests to prevent forest fires from moving into communities. This can help slow the spread of fire across a landscape, but cutting down swaths of trees can cause increased runoff, soil erosion, sedimentation, and pollution to nearby bodies of water. Linear firebreaks, including roads, can cause habitat fragmentation and reduce biodiversity.

Recommendations for fire-adapted communities such as those mentioned above focus on modifying the environment to suit humans, rather than reducing environmental impacts. They may be practical measures to protect existing communities, but other options are available for future development that would have less negative environmental impact. A more compact form of development would be beneficial for ecosystems and would allow municipalities to provide infrastructure – including emergency services – more cost-effectively.

An alternative form for future development

Another approach for adapting future communities could be a retreat or avoidance strategy, rather than relying entirely on protection for at-risk communities. These strategies are more common for managing flood risk– avoiding development in vulnerable coastal areas is more effective than building physical barriers to protect coastal developments from flooding and erosion. 

Similarly, rather than expanding into natural areas where wildfires are more common, municipalities could aim to contain new development within a more compact urban area. Where appropriate, fire-resistant construction materials could be used to reduce the risk of fire spread. The line between natural areas and developed areas might look more like a short, well-defined interface rather than an intermix. Benefits to this style of development include:

  • Higher-density communities take up less land area and have less environmental impacts.
  • Higher-density communities have shorter perimeters bordering the wildland, lowering the risk of exposure to fire.
  • Higher-density communities are more cost-effective for municipalities to serve with services and utilities, including water infrastructure and fire protection.
  • Avoiding development into natural areas could make more room for fire to play its natural role without being suppressed, allowing for healthier and more resilient ecosystems.

Strategies that use firebreaks to slow fire spread may be useful in certain contexts – especially to protect vulnerable areas through community-based or Indigenous-led approaches. For future developments, there is an opportunity to reduce risk and protect ecosystems by keeping a more compact form. Municipalities may want to reconsider their long-term approach to future development to facilitate better fire protection, reduce communities’ vulnerability to wildfires, and reduce negative impacts to ecosystems.

Further Reading

Anderson, D. (2023, June 27). What causes wildfires? Lightning, people, climate change … and obsessively putting them out. The Narwhal. 

Barnes, C., Boulanger, Y., Keeping, T., Gachon, P., Gillett, N., Boucher, J., Roberge, F., Kew, S., Haas, O., Heinrich, D., Vahlberg, M., Singh, R., Elbe, M., Sivanu, S., Arrighi, J., Van Aalst, M., Otto, F., Zachariah, M., Krikken, F., … Kimutai, J. (2023). Climate change more than doubled the likelihood of extreme fire weather conditions in Eastern Canada. 

Becker, D. M., Jensen, S. E., & McPherson, G. R. (2004). Impacts of Fire-Suppression Activities on Natural Communities. Conservation Biology, 18(4), 937-946.  

Calkin, D. E., Cohen, J. D., Finney, M. A., & Thompson, M. P. (2013). How risk management can prevent future wildfire disasters in the wildland-urban interface. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(2), 746-751. 

CBC News. (2023). Hurricane Fiona, wildfires show how Atlantic Canada is especially vulnerable to climate change. 

Commission for Environmental Cooperation. (2022, April 27). Mi’kmaq Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation: Bear River NS [Video]. YouTube.  

Halifax Regional Municipality. (2005). Settlement Pattern and Form with Service Cost Analysis. 

Joudry, S. (2016). Puktewei: Learning from fire in Mi’kma’ki (Mi’kmaq territory) [Master’s thesis, Dalhousie University]. 

Kaim, D. (2018). Intermix (left) and Interface (right) Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) [Screenshot]. Google Maps. 

Lahey, W. (2018). An Independent Review of Forest Practices in Nova Scotia. 

McKinley, S. (2023, June 3). Is how and where we’re building homes just feeding the flames of wildfires? Toronto Star. 

National Research Council Canada. (2021). National guide for wildland-urban-interface fires: guidance on hazard and exposure assessment, property protection, community resilience and emergency planning to minimize the impact of wildland-urban interface fires. 

Ryan, H. (2023, June 16). Officials knew of wildfire risk in Upper Tantallon for years but did nothing, say residents. CBC News. 

Schmitt, A. (2015, March 5). Sprawl Costs the Public More Than Twice as Much as Compact Development. Streetsblog USA. 

Shinneman, D. J., Germino, M. J., Pilliod, D. S., Aldridge, C. L., Vaillant, N. M., & Coates, P. S. (2019). The ecological uncertainty of wildfire fuel breaks: examples from the sagebrush steppe. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 17(5), 279–288. 

United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. (n.d.). Land use planning: Wildfire risk to communities. 

White, C. A., Perrakis, D. D. B., Kafka, V. G., & Ennis, T. (2011). Burning at the Edge: Integrating Biophysical and Eco-Cultural Fire Processes in Canada’s Parks and Protected Areas. Fire Ecology 7, 74–106. 

Ziafati, N. (2023, June 8). ‘Tremendous amount we could be doing’: Expert shares tips for preventing, adapting to wildfires. CTV News. 

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