Are the Canadian Wildfires Really “Natural” Disasters?

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

“You have not thought things through,” he said. By his standards it was a brutal insult.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest


It would be lovely if this were an abstract painting:

But it’s not. It’s a portrait of a Canadian wildfire, one of those that briefly turned New York into the most polluted city in the world, beating out New Delhi. The Canadian wildfires are record-breaking in area:

Canada is on track to exceed the largest total amount of burned area with 2,214 wildfires and 3.3 million hectares burned so far, according to data released June 4 by Natural Resources Canada.

Here is a map that shows their scope, from Natural Resources Canada:

That’s a lot of red dots! Amusingly, the ensuring smoke blanketed the Acela Corridor:

It may, however, be too much to expect that the experience of choking on yellow haze would issue forth in any policy changes.

In any case, the plume has now moved on the flyover.

Ever hopeful, however, I will press on. I will discuss the causes of wildfires, then present one particular cause, as exhibited in three Canadian provinces, and briefly conclude.

Wikipedia defines wildfires as follows:

A wildfire, forest fire, bushfire, wildland fire or rural fire is an unplanned, uncontrolled and unpredictable fire in an area of combustible vegetation.

I don’t see how wildfires can be classified as unpredictable. They are no more unpredictable than the zoonotic tranmission of viruses when humans and other animals live in close proximity (and especially when humans encroach on previously “wild” territory).

That there will be wildfires is thoroughly predictable; the issue is how and where to locate their causes.

One approach is the thoroughly neoliberal message of Smoky the Bear:

Here, the blame cause is located in individual actions; “only you,” and not global warming, or timber industry practices, or even lightning. Good propaganda, but not serious analytically.

A second approach is more sophisticated but no less ideological. From the Government of British Columbia:

The cause of a wildfire is determined by professional investigations. The BC Wildfire Service employs fire origin and cause specialists to conduct investigations in accordance with international standards. They may look for:

  • Ignition sources
  • Burn patterns
  • Physical evidence
  • Weather history

Wildfire investigations can be complex and may take weeks or even months to complete.

At least the professionals have moved beyond “only you.” (Other approaches to causality are to blame climate alone or to deny that a problem exists.)

However, we notice that although the professionals “may look for” items on their checklist, there is one item conspicuously absent, that they (apparently) may not look for: Economics. Specifically, the tendency of forest products companies to create monocultures, which burn more easily. From the Natural Resources Defense Council:

The logging industry relies heavily on replanting efforts that create tree stands that are less biologically and structurally diverse and less resilient to future disturbances like extreme weather and climate change than the trees that have been removed. This exacerbates clearcutting impacts because even when these forests regrow, many have been turned into monoculture tree plantations that do not have the same ecological health as intact, multispecies forest ecosystems. One 2012 study argued that ‘the widespread application of even-aged, single species management at all scales of boreal forest management interferes with fundamental ecological processes that maintain ecosystem integrity in boreal forests.’


However, clearcut logging and monoculture replanting often exacerbate wildfires, and studies have shown that intact forest areas experience less severe fires than logged areas.

(The same process has occurred in Europe, for those who remember the enormous eucalyptus fires in Portugal.)

Now, I’ll present examples of forest monocultures[1] in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Nova Scotia, and Quebec. (I’m saving Quebec for last, because the most impassioned posting was on Quebec, although, interesting, not in the Anglo mainstream press).

First, Alberta. From The Energy Mix:

By killing off all the broad-leafed species, the companies create a monoculture, ‘making a coniferous tree plantation instead of a forest,’ the paper adds.

Forest companies using herbicides and mechanical removal methods to eradicate aspen from the spruce and pine crops they want to harvest are depriving moose of a winter food source and making wildfires more likely in Alberta forests, the Edmonton Journal reports. The clumps and colonies of aspen that grow around Edmonton and northern Alberta ‘are less likely to burn than spruce or pine and cool the forest so well that, when fully-leafed out, wildland firefighters flee to a stand of aspen if the fire unexpectedly shifts,’ the Journal explains.

But “forestry companies consider aspen a weed when growing conifers, spruce or pine. So roughly 30,000 hectares a year of forest are sprayed with glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp. That’s roughly half the size of Edmonton, or 40% of the 80,000 hectares of forest harvested annually” across the province.

So just ask yourself which is more likely to burn: A forest with many species, or one where the timber companies planted hectare after hectare of Christmas trees?

Second, Nova Scotia. From the Halifax Examiner:

“What’s really changed is the condition of our forest,” [professional forester Wade] Prest tells me. “It’s no longer diverse.”

“Our original forest was probably mostly mixed. It tended towards a softwood mix in some areas, and to hardwood mix in others,” Prest explains. Prior to European settlement, he says Wabanaki-Acadian forests would have good canopy coverage, and underneath the canopy it would be generally damp most of the time, without a lot of sunlight getting through to the forest floor.

“And that in itself would be what would stop the fires from either starting or being widespread,” Prest says. “Certainly, the forest has changed.”

“I’ve always been critical of industrial forestry practices, and have vigorously promoted the natural Acadian forest as a model for ecological, social, and economic sustainability for Nova Scotia,” Prest says.


One of the greatest defences that we have against fire risk is diversity … not just of species composition but also age and physical attributes. [Mike Lancaster, coordinator of the Healthy Forest Coalition in Nova Scotia] notes that after World War II and the Vietnam War, there was an explosion in the development of herbicides that were used to kill off deciduous species and manage forests for softwood species industry was looking for.

“It is widely known that conifer forests present a greater forest fire risk than those which are deciduous dominant,” Lancaster says. Because the forestry industry in Nova Scotia has historically been geared to favour coniferous species, in his view, “That translates as an increased forest fire hazard

And finally Quebec, from a long and passionate thread by Peter Gelderloos:

The fires in Quebec are raging in tree plantations that get counted as carbon offsets…. Tree plantations are part of the industrial system of extraction and production. A form of monocrop farming, they are the basis for the profits of the logging industry, which is more in demand as green products proliferate…. Tree plantations are also advantageous because they are fully integrated with the mining industry, using some of the same extraction infrastructure and helping cover up part of the sacrifice zones mining leaves behind….

Most urban people and settlers do not know what a forest is. They see trees, and think it is a forest. .

Governments use the term “forest” without distinguishing between a forest ecosystem and a tree plantation. When I talk about a forest, I’m talking about a robust ecosystem. Granted, non-forests exist on a continuum from monocrop tree plantations planted in rows to post-clearcut regrowth that is managed and commercially harvested..

The forest fires in Quebec and Ontario are originating disproportionately in “managed forest” which are on the continuum of tree plantations.

I wish I could run down the underlined claim by Gelderloos, because laying the fire map on top of the tree plantation map would tie a very neat bow around this post. Alas, I cannot, because the link Gelderloos supplies — here — for the latter map is broken, due to government link rot. Perhaps a kind reader can help?

What I can say is that government policy in Quebec was changed c. 2010 to optimize for ‘management activities for enhanced forest productivity and output value. Hence, the use of plantation will increase in future years, and that, according to Pulp and Paper Canada:

The door is open for large scale tree farming, intensive monocultures and other environmentally non-friendly practices within the “intensive forest management” approach.

* * *

Of course, the fool who throws a match into dry timber can “cause” a wildfire. And of course, global warming makes wildfires more likely as well. But in between the individual and the planet is the economic realm — the realm of private property and capital[2] — a third layer of causality which is erased or devalued in all the wildfire coverage I have seen. As the New York Times writes, 26 paragraphs in (!!), in a 2022 article on (so-called) “reforestation”:

A challenge is that helping biodiversity doesn’t offer the financial return of carbon storage or timber markets.

A distinct paucity of excrement, Sherlock! Until we deal with that “challenge,” we will not have “thought things through.” So, nothing “natural” about these disasters at all. What’s “natural” about a timber company?


[1] Canada does have standards for forest management, supposedly ecologically sound, but from my very cursory reading, the standards were written with industry concerns top-of-mind, and the whole process was infested with NGOs and carbon offset types.

[2] I had originally hoped to include material on California wildfires and real estate. Perhaps another time.


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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Acacia

    Lambert, that link from Gelderloos works for me:

    Carbon in Canada’s boreal forest — A synthesis
    W.A. Kurz, C.H. Shaw, C. Boisvenue, G. Stinson, J. Metsaranta, D. Leckie, A. Dyk, C. Smyth,
    and E.T. Neilson

    PDF sent to your corrente address.

    W.r.t. forest fires, I remember discovering years ago that timber companies get to log in some USian national parks, and thinking: “oh, so THAT’s what ‘Smokey the Bear’ is about.”

  2. kam

    Forest Fires have become Political kindling.
    1. Forest fires are natural, usually lightning caused, followed by human caused, sometime deliberate.
    2. Before modern man building roads into forest, only Mother Nature stopped Forest fires. No one else could or cared.
    3. Anyone who seriously walked and observed a forest will find many signs of old forest fires. Look at the ages/sized of the trees. That will tell you how long it has been growing. Look for old, burned stumps. That will tell you the likely, last forest fire. Look also for single, burned trees. These, most often were struck by lightning but did not ignite the whole forest.
    4. Look who is responsible for putting the fire out. If it is controlled by Government and Government employees, a small fire willl always become out of control. The need to feed the camera and the political machine, far out weigh the secondary object of extinguishing the fire.
    5. I had a fire crew on an electric power-line-caused fire, in the early evening, when a Government Employee, with a badge, told us to vacate the area, they were taking over. They sat in their trucks all night until daybreak the next day, when the cooler air started rising up the mountain making the fire out of control. The fire burned all summer, destroying thousands of acres.
    Be prepared, Hit it Hard, Hit it Fast ? Now is, Make a Plan after the fire has gotten out of control, put as many resources as possible into the Media/Message center, blame/guilt shame those whose livelihoods come from the forest.

    1. lambert strether

      Wildfires have no single cause. However, of three possible layers of causality — the individual, political economy, the planetary — most commentary ignores the middle.

      1. Mildred Montana

        Very informative post. It was an eye-opener for me. The phrase “tree plantation” is now a part of my vocabulary. And thanks for not ignoring the “middle”.

        As an aside, I find television coverage of the fires distressing and often avoid watching it. Can’t help but think of the poor wildlife from small to large. I want to say, “Oh, the animality!”

  3. LAS

    Many industrial level decisions have been protested by communities and/or public health reps to no avail. Downstream of these industrial decisions (after the profit has been made), victimized individuals are portrayed as the morally accountable entities who made poor decisions and must do the remediation. So many lives have been ruined and so much money has been spent on trying to clean up after these industrial level decisions. There are endless historical examples: putting lead into gasoline and paint, the opiod crisis which drug distributors fueled by enabling/supporting massive drug diversion, and assault weapons that now communities are not even permitted to outlaw in their own domain. It’s a long list of dangerous stuff thrust on individuals, including many children, not according to their choice at all. Highly paid lawyers make the legal and political arguements in favor of industry as if it were the choice of individuals. They have purposely weakened responsible governance with this nonsense.

  4. Sub-Boreal

    Thank you for giving this more careful attention. I’m in a lull between bread-risings, so this will be brief; may say more later.

    I’m not a forester, but I’ve worked with them in both academic and government settings, and hang out with miscellaneous forest sciencey types both in work and socially. What I’ve learned from them, as well as my own reading of the literature that’s relevant here, is that events like the current Canadian fires (and previous bad years in BC, like 2017 & 2018) have such an intermingling of causes and amplifiers that it’s futile to try to hang everything on just one of these. But I’m satisfied that we’re now at the point that the severity and extent of recent bad fire years has been so strongly pushed by climate that things like stand composition and previous management history – which might have been more influential in shaping fire behaviour in the past – are increasingly getting run over by more extreme weather conditions (i.e. drought, lightning frequency, winds). As a forester colleague said, when I was trying to take some comfort from the predominance of supposedly less combustible deciduous species in the forests near our workplace, if the conditions are right, anything will burn.

    Regarding your note [1], it’s important to remember that forest management policies and standards on public (“Crown”) lands are set and administered at the provincial, not federal level. So although their overall purpose is extractionist, there are variations of degree across the country. And that’s superimposed on natural climatic and ecological variety.

    Off to knead for a while.

    1. lambert strether

      > But I’m satisfied that we’re now at the point that the severity and extent of recent bad fire years has been so strongly pushed by climate that things like stand composition and previous management history – which might have been more influential in shaping fire behaviour in the past – are increasingly getting run over by more extreme weather conditions (i.e. drought, lightning frequency, winds)

      If this is correct, happens at the political economy level?

  5. GF

    There was speculation a week or so ago about arson as the cause for many of the fires in Nova Scotia and Quebec due to the seemingly noticeable pattern and timing of the initial ignitions (sorry I can’t find the link). So the question becomes: Were these “arson” fires started on tree farm lands maybe by Earth First! types to hurt the timber industry and allow for natural regrowth of the typical forest of old? I will remove my tin foil hat now.

    1. playon

      I think the so-called “arson” was simply a PR campaign to distract from the real culprits; climate change and forestry practices.

  6. John R Moffett

    Maximizing return on capital and “doing what is right” are almost always at cross-purposes. That is why capitalism primarily creates problems rather than solving them. Primitive, unregulated capitalism is completely without virtue, whereas a more mature and sustainable capitalism, if such a thing is possible, would put virtue above returns on investment.

    1. some guy

      The clearest proof that something is possible is if that something has happened. We had ” Capitalism with a Human Face” under FDR ( who I suggest could be called America’s Dubcek) . . . Ordered Capitalism under Law . . . . and it worked well enough that the Anarcho-Lawless Crapitalists had to spend decades plotting and conspiring to get the New Deal repealed and abolished step by step. And they are now working on the last steps ( abolish Social Security and abolish Child Labor Laws).

  7. Sub-Boreal

    Bread is in the oven, so there’s time to pass along some links that I’ve found useful:

    1. Re: the propagation of the arson theory.

    2. Why are the Canadian wildfires so bad this year? (open-access)

    3. For Twitterites, this northern BC fire ecologist provides a steady stream of fire-related news and research links.

    4. Fire-regime changes in Canada over the last half century. (open-access)

    Contemporary fire regimes of Canadian forests have been well documented based on forest fire records between the late 1950s to 1990s. Due to known limitations of fire datasets, an analysis of changes in fire-regime characteristics could not be easily undertaken. This paper presents fire-regime trends nationally and within two zonation systems, the homogeneous fire-regime zones and ecozones, for two time periods, 1959–2015 and 1980–2015. Nationally, trends in both area burned and number of large fires (≥200 ha) have increased significantly since 1959, which might be due to increases in lightning-caused fires. Human-caused fires, in contrast, have shown a decline. Results suggest that large fires have been getting larger over the last 57 years and that the fire season has been starting approximately one week earlier and ending one week later. At the regional level, trends in fire regimes are variable across the country, with fewer significant trends. Area burned, number of large fires, and lightning-caused fires are increasing in most of western Canada, whereas human-caused fires are either stable or declining throughout the country. Overall, Canadian forests appear to have been engaged in a trajectory towards more active fire regimes over the last half century.

      1. Sub-Boreal

        Fair enough, Lambert.

        I hang out mostly with sciencey types, and the PE aspects tend not to get discussed among ourselves, beyond a certain amount of helpless shrugging / cynicism. I can’t prove it, but I suspect that a lot of this stems from my peers generally not being too impressed by any of the academic social sciences that they get exposed to in school*, so there’s not much faith in how much they can really explain about why we’re in this pickle, let alone offer solutions. Of course this leads to its own kind of blinkered embubblement, and when sciencey types actually get involved in political action the results may not be too pretty. The recently-ended political career of the climatologist who led the BC Green Party for a few years is a good example.

        *In my case, I started out as a geographer, and before I chose to detour into one of the earth sciences, I had to take a certain number of required courses in social and economic geography. Unfortunately, these had the weakest instructors, and the worst-written textbooks & papers, full of jargon-laden B.S. So I didn’t come away with a very positive impression of what they had to tell us about the human predicament. Perhaps I was unlucky in where / when I went to school, but my 40-year detour worked out well, and I think I was reasonably socially useful. And I did end up reading a lot about the social / political side of environmental matters on my own time, but I was pretty ruthless about ditching things that seemed fluffy before they took up much of my time. So, that’s my confession!

  8. Angie Neer

    I grew up in the Northeast U.S. where there were a lot of forests, but I rarely encountered logging. When I moved to western Washington I was shocked by the widespread and highly visible clearcutting. However, after a while I started to think “Well, all that wood we consume has to come from somewhere…and it’s renewable—it’s just another kind of farming. Do I complain when a wheat field is clear-cut?” So although I remained skeptical of the “forest stewardship” image projected by the industrial loggers, their messaging basically worked on me. This article is very clarifying, especially the distinction between forests and a tree plantation.

    1. playon

      My father was a geographer in and I recall back in the 80s that he flew over the Cascades in central Washinging in a small plane and was stunned by the amount of clear cutting. Burlington Northern railway was cashing in on the thousands of square miles of trees that they had been given in the 1800s. At this point it is difficult to find any first growth forests outside of a national park.

  9. Carolinian

    I car toured Canada a couple of decades back and was surprised to learn that they allowing logging in their national parks–which is not the policy here. And needless to say some of the world’s largest mining companies are headquartered in Canada. It’s an extraction economy with lots of land and a climate that keeps the tree growth slow. On the plus side the switch to digital means the NY Times may no longer be hauling quite so many trees in the form of newsprint out of the place. I believe they used to have their own mill.

    1. RonR

      For some reason logging was/has been permitted in two national parks in Canada, & that is all for the whole country, provincial & federal.

    1. diptherio

      I guess at least they’re not blaming Antifa. About as dumb, though. I live around a lot of people who fall for this kind of thing. Gawd bless ’em, they are not bright people.

      1. swangeese

        I disagree. Even intelligent people can believe stupid things. Humans, at our core, are fallible and prone to error.

        Americans, and I imagine Canadians, are lied to so much by our media that thinking part of the real story has been omitted is a reasonable assumption. Hell I frequent alt news sites because I trust the MSM about as much as Leslie Nielson telling me there’s nothing to see here.

        There’s also Lambert’s SCADS (state crimes against democracy).

        And aside from the propaganda from the polluting industries, which is thick, there are a lot of people that don’t want to absorb the reality of the situation because climate reality IS dismal. A group of arsonists is a lot more controllable and comfortable to imagine. If you have kids/grandkids, you don’t want to think that they’re about to inherit a hellscape.

        Even if you do believe it, then what to do about it?!

        “Smart people” have sold us a fantasy that we will technology our way out of a crisis. Or maybe we just buy more carbon offsets/credits/whatevers.

        My late mom used to use pretzel logic to explain why the Democrats really were on the side of the people. She could keenly see through scams and nonsense otherwise, but had a mental block when it came to a few pet issues. We’re all like this and smarter people are simply better at making elaborate ‘reasons’ for believing a certain way.

        1. some guy

          ” You have to pull the wool over your own eyes before you can pull it over someone else’s.”

          —-J. R. ” Bob” Dobbs

        2. Carla

          @ swangeese — great comment and a version of it belongs in most intelligent comment threads. Thank you.

  10. ChrisPacific

    So when a tree plantation that was used for carbon offsets burns, the offsets should become null and void, right? Since all that carbon that was sequestered is now released. Do the sellers of the offsets have to pay the buyers back?

    I bet I know the answer to that question.

  11. Ignacio

    We had Australia, now Canada. Add the usual level of human caused wildfires (if there is any real wild left) elsewhere. Meanwhile we are swimming in BS produced by our excellent leadership.

    The good days are well behind us.

  12. Adam Eran

    Yet another thing to add to the list of systemic problems… Climate, crime, education, unemployment, immigration, etc.

  13. Watt4Bob

    My son lives in Edmonton, on a recent trip home, (upper midwest) he mentioned the fact that Northern Alberta had only 2 kinds of trees.

    When he travels home, and back, it’s the diversity of the forest that he notices on the drive.

    He told me this for the first time last Thursday as we drove north.

  14. Jimmy James

    Further to BCs love affair with monoculture, BC and Alberta forests had Mountain Pine Beetle outbreaks some years back which left a lot of dead standing pine. Forest fires in this forest burn very hot, convection is greater with subsequent further ashfall and fire goes deep in soils. Also BC dropped it’s Martin Mars high volume water bomber program in favour of smaller volume aircraft. Combine to make fighting more difficult.

  15. some guy

    I remember reading that before the Era of EuroSettler Conquest, that various Indigenous nation-loads of people and persons would periodically burn their lived-in landscapes at “safe-times” of the target-year in order to maintain the forms and communities of plants and etc. which they wished to maintain.

    Part of America’s anti-Indian culturecide was the suppression of ” cultural burning/ Indian burning” all over the country. Suppressing any fire in the Western ( and somewhat other) forests permits the buildup of vast ground-level and crowded-tree fuel reserve which burn bigly when they burn.

    Did Canada engage in the same kind of fire suppression against its conquered and occupied First Nations? Has Canada likewise fostered the buildup of huge masses of unburned material out there in the woods which burns bigly when it burns?

    1. Grateful Dude

      biochar seems to being rediscovered lately. I’d heard decades ago about grow places in the Everglades and the Amazon forests, one mostly swampy and the other with lots of life in the canopy but not much soil. I believe there are some still in regular use in the remoter parts of the Amazon.

  16. Q

    By contrast, the Australian bushfires that consumed some 13 million hectares in the austral summer of 2019-2020 were the result of extremely dry conditions over much of eastern Australia, and of course the native eucalyptus forests burn readily and have a fire ecology. Even adjacent rainforests were burnt in some cases. Accidental fires and dry lightning were the source of most blazes.

  17. Grateful Dude

    Overstory, The novel by Richard Powers is wildly ecstatic tree lore. Fiction, I guess, but it’s so deep and broad that plot and characters are there just to bring us the overstory.

  18. Piotr Berman

    I wonder about economics of tree mono-culture. Among investment, it is a relative rarity in these times by being long term. Perhaps it has short-term value as an asset that can prop stock price or a loan collateral, and its current value presumably increases in proportion to the percentage of marketable trees. However, potentially marketable trees bring low return when they burn.

    From the description above, setting aside part of the plantation for aspens could reduce the scope of fires. Deciduous tree tend to have deeper shade and leaves rot MUCH faster than conifer needles that form several inch thick easy to ignite layer. More sustainable forest should be more valuable that more burnable forest. And if there are any dollars paid for carbon capture, they should depend on some assessment of resistance to fires. All of that increases costs and perhaps to boring to companies and respective government administrator, but a bad year like this one can promote feasible improvements.

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