IN-DEPTH: Wildfires Exacerbated by Poor Forest Management, Professors Say

IN-DEPTH: Wildfires Exacerbated by Poor Forest Management, Professors Say
Smoke from wildfires burning across Ontario and Quebec blanket the skyline in Kingston, Ont., on June 6, 2023. (The Canadian Press/Lars Hagberg)
Matthew Horwood

While there have been suggestions that wildfires are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change, environmental and economic professors interviewed by The Epoch Times say that the number of fires has been decreasing for decades and that the cause of the fires in many cases can be attributed to poor forest management.

“The prime minister said that climate change is causing more and more forest fires, and the record shows the opposite,” said Ross McKitrick, an environmental economics professor at the University of Guelph.

“The Canadian Wildland Fire Information System shows that the number of forest fires has actually been going down in Canada since the 1990s.”

As several wildfires in northern Quebec led to thick smoke plumes that blanketed cities across Ontario and the Eastern United States, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada is experiencing “more and more of these fires because of climate change.”

“These fires are affecting everyday routines, lives and livelihoods, and our air quality. We’ll keep working—here at home and with partners around the world—to tackle climate change and address its impacts,” he said on Twitter on June 7.
U.S. President Joe Biden made a similar comment on Canada’s wildfires, tweeting that such events “are intensifying because of the climate crisis.”

But McKitrick notes that even the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change isn’t blaming wildfires on climate change.

“When people look for an easy explanation, trying to blame it on climate change for instance, the obstacle to that is if it was a global climate change story, we'd see an increase globally in area burned from wildfires, and that isn’t there in the record,” he said.

“The major data collection agencies and scientists who studied them have not claimed there’s an increase in global area burned—if anything, it’s trending down slightly—and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change doesn’t make that claim, doesn’t say that that’s a detectable effect of climate change.”

He adds that what has made the current Quebec fires so unusual is that the smoke plumes have formed over southern Ontario and the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.

“People living on the British Columbia coast have some experience with the days with the weird orange haze in the air, but for people in Toronto, New York City, or Washington, it is a very unusual experience,” he said.

“So that part gets a lot of attention. But as far as the number of forest fires, we’re pretty much on average for the fire season. The area burned so far this year is quite large, but it remains to be seen whether it’s going to be an exceptional year in that way.”

Forest Management

According to McKitrick, the increased size and intensity of wildfires can be attributed to the accumulation of fuel caused by the alteration of forest management practices in Canada and the United States in the 1980s. During that time, he said, governments began to limit the number of interventions people could do to remove fuel loads from the forest, which led to the accumulation of more flammable, dry debris.

“The suppression of forest management has meant much larger fuel loads in a lot of forests now, so we do expect to see that when forest fires break out, they can become unmanageable much more quickly,” he said.

Controlled burns, or prescribed fires, reduce hazardous fuels and help mitigate the intensity of wildfires.

Mark Heathcott, a fire expert who managed Parks Canada’s controlled burns for more than 20 years, told Maclean’s in 2016 that Canada was behind the United States in terms of controlled fires.
Parks Canada only has 24 controlled burns on its list of 2023 prescribed fires, while south of the border there were over 151,000 in 2019, according to the latest prescribed fires figures from the U.S. National Interagency Fire Center.

“A lot of lip service is paid to it but very few agencies do it,” Heathcott wrote. “People don’t understand the benefit of fire.”

Cornelis van Kooten, an economics professor and Canada Research Chair in Environmental Studies and Climate at the University of Victoria, also says poor forest management has made the wildfire situation worse.

“In the past, we used controlled burns, but environmentalists are against those, so we don’t do that anymore. So as a result of the increased fuel loads, you get these more intense, bigger fires,” he said.

While van Kooten said climate change has had “some effect” on the frequency of forest fires, he cautioned against solely attributing the wildfires problem to rising CO2 levels and seeing carbon reduction as the only solution.

“If that’s all you’re going to do, well, you’re not dealing with the problem of forest fires,” he said.

“We’re just poor at managing forests, and the reason we’re poor at managing forests is a number of factors. One is we’re unwilling to spend the kind of money that’s needed.”

Matthew Wielicki, a former assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Alabama, points out that according to the Canadian National Fire Database, since 1980, the number of wildfires has been trending downward as greenhouse gas emissions increased.
“I kind of like to look at what’s happening in the past to predict what’s going to happen in the future. And if the trend continues, then wildfires should keep decreasing, even though we may have years that are higher than normal because of the internal variability of a really complex system like this,” he said.

Wielicki said fire suppression techniques in Canada and the United States have inadvertently caused the buildup of flammable underbrush in forests.

“When you have a couple of dry years, that becomes tinder. When you get a fire it will start to spread much more rapidly than it would naturally, and it can burn more intensely. And so we’ve actually seen fires that will kill a forest, when normally [only] the underbrush burns and the trees survive,” he said.

“Ultimately, we’re going to have to learn how to live with fire and try to suppress it constantly. Many in the forest management industry are saying that our suppression techniques have been so good, that we’re setting ourselves up for bigger and worse fires in the future.”


The timing and intensity of some of the wildfires across Canada have led many to theorize online that they were the result of arson. On June 8, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said the province would be bringing in arson investigators to determine the reason behind 175 wildfires with no known cause.
There have been cases of arsonists deliberately lighting forest fires. In May, the RCMP laid charges against an Alberta man in connection with a series of “intentionally set wildfires,” from September 2022, as well as setting fire to vehicles, homes, and a church this April. In Quebec, police are investigating the possibility that the recent fires in the province were the result of arson, the Toronto Sun reported.

“There is an investigation because the cause is suspect,” Sûreté du Québec media officer Hugues Beaulieu said.

Wielicki said he believes ecoterrorism is a real threat and is being exacerbated by politicians and scientists “catastrophizing” climate change.

“It’s leading people to hysteria, giving them so much anxiety that there are people out there that think that going out and setting fires during a time when it’s going to be dry and windy will lead to saving the planet somehow.”

However, he said he believes the Quebec wildfires were caused by lightning, not by arson, because the timing of the fires lined up with a series of storms that caused lightning strikes, which would have sparked the fires.

“It’s been shown there was a line of thunderstorms, and it matches pretty darn well to the fires that all started at the same time. And by the time you can see it in the satellite imagery, those storms and clouds have all moved away,” Wielicki said.

According to Natural Resources Canada, forest fires started by lightning represent 45 percent of all fires and 81 percent of the total area burned.