systems thinking

TEP #044: How Wildfires Expose Shocking Failures in Problemsolving

I’m getting really tired of the Canadian wildfire smoke.

And it’s not just me coughing.

Approximately 100 million Americans are under Air Quality Index Alerts due to smoke drift.

Everyone’s asking: 

What can be done to stop the fires and reduce the smoke?

But I keep reading all these unsatisfying news reports, saying things like:

“The fires are caused by climate change, which Canada alone can’t prevent. So get used to it.”


“Canada doesn’t have the capacity to stop all the fires currently burning. So we just have to live with the smoke.”

I find these answers shallow and misleading.

In this week’s issue, I dissect 2 critical insights from Canada’s out-of-control wildfires that remind us of how systems thinking informs problemsolving.

Start With The Facts, But Then Go a Little Deeper

Before we dive in, let’s acknowledge 3 basic facts about the wildfires.

First, Canada, its forests, and the number of fires, are all huge.

Canada is the second-largest country in the world, and about half of it is forest. 

Much of it is remote and not easily accessible. 

So far this year, there have been over 4,000 wildfires, and over 25 million acres, about the size of Portugal, has already burned.

Second, the wildfires and related smoke are nothing new. 

As Daniel Perrakis, a fire research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service in British Columbia, observes: 

“We have papers from the early 1900s talking about smoky days over American cities, going back to the 1700s.”

Finally, while climate change may be exacerbating the hot and dry conditions of Canadian forests, contributing to fires being more likely and intense, the twin causes of wildfires are the same as they always have been: lightning and humans.

All of these facts make it seem reasonable that controlling this year’s wildfires is beyond Canada’s current abilities.

However, what most news reports fail to explain is that the forest conditions and management capacity are largely a result of Canada’s own misguided policies.

Here’s where it gets really interesting…

The Tinderbox of Well-Intentioned Safety Measures 

There’s a systems thinking truism coined by Peter Senge that:

“Tomorrow’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.”

When it comes to preventing wildfires, the pursuit of safety can inadvertently fan the flames of disaster. 

The paradox lies in the fact that well-meaning restrictions aimed at curbing fire risk have given rise to out-of-control blazes rather than preventing them.

Let me explain.

For a long time, controlled burns (a proven technique used for centuries by Indigenous communities and land managers) played a vital role in reducing wildfire risk. 

By deliberately setting controlled fires during favorable conditions, excess vegetation and fuel are reduced, mitigating the intensity of potential wildfires.

However, a concerning trend emerged in Canada. 

Fear of unintended consequences and an overly cautious approach to safety led to restrictions on controlled burns. 

In other words, fire suppression was the default policy solution for years.

“[Controlled burning] is a great technique, but we haven’t used it that much in Canada,” says Perrakis.

Ironically, this very caution has paved the way for the perfect conditions for catastrophic fires. 

By preventing controlled burns, Canada has inadvertently created an environment primed for massive, uncontrollable infernos.

As Mike Flannigan, a researcher at Thompson Rivers University in the middle of Canadian wildfire country, was quoted in the New York Times:

“We need to do more to get ahead of the problem. And progress on that has been slow, primarily because we are kind of stuck in this paradigm that fire suppression is the solution.”

A compelling case could be made that the wildfires aren’t the problem.

Yesterday’s solution – and the mindset that promotes it – is the problem.

But there’s more.

Austerity’s Blaze: Revenge of the Budget Slayer

Back in the 1990s, Paul Martin, (a Canadian Finance minister known as the “deficit slayer’) cut the Canadian Forest Service staff from 2,200 to 700.

The goal, of course, was to reduce government spending.

Budget cuts to the forest service appear fiscally wise, but they kindle a blaze of unintended consequences. 

The spark? 

Another systems thinking insight laid out by Senge: 

“The easy way leads back in.”

It’s a way of saying that the easy road – leaning ever harder on familiar solutions like fire suppression – can make the problem worse in the long-run.

Trimming funds in the short term may seem prudent, but when wildfires roar, the costs roar louder.

As flames devour forests, firefighting expenses soar. 

Michael Norton, director general, Northern Forestry Centre, Canadian Forest Service, said that the cost of fighting wildfires has steadily grown and is approaching about CDN$1 billion (US$750 million) a year.

Official firefighting budgets for provinces are smaller than ever, but out-of-control blazes and emergency spending are at record highs.

This doesn’t even consider other costs associated with the wildfires, like health costs.

According to some researchers, the human exposure to smoke and subsequently to adverse health outcomes for just June 4-8 are estimated to be $1.28 billion in Ontario alone.

It’s here that systems thinking steps in again with a simple yet profound problemsolving lesson: 

Invest today to save tomorrow. 

A well-staffed forest service equipped for regular controlled burns could become a successful long-term strategy.

Spending now to prevent spending more later may defy conventional logic, but it aligns beautifully with the dance of complex systems—a dance where foresight outweighs shortsightedness.

The Problem Is Never The Problem

So, in the smoky aftermath, let’s heed the lessons written in ash and embers. 

As I like to say, the problem is never the problem.

Rather, it’s how people think about the problem.

Wildfires aren’t our enemy, nor is strategic investment in the Forest Service.

In fact, spending more to judiciously set (controlled) wildfires might be part of the solution.

See you next week.


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