In 1950, when the Chinchaga wildfire swept through Canadian forests, it gave rise to an unprecedented amount of smoke. People all over the northern hemisphere saw it and puzzled over it. Today, we’re less surprised when catastrophic wildfires surge through forests and bushlands cloaking forests and cities in smoke. In recent years, these fires have become more frequent, larger in scale, and more difficult to control. Wildfires have affected several countries such as China, Australia, Russia, U.S.A, Canada, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
Given the current state of the planet, it has become clear that we can expect more smoke in our future. But it’s also important to understand the necessity for it in minor doses. History and scientific research has shown us that small, controlled fires are key to maintaining a healthy environment.
Living with Smoke: Lessons from the Chinchaga Fire is the result of a two year research project that examines the history of transient wildfire smoke in the northern hemisphere as part of the impact of the ever evolving climate change crisis.
A little bit of smoke is a sign of a healthy environment in the boreal forest. But, as I write in my 2023 article, “forest smoke occupies an awkward space in the public imagination. […] Because it is difficult to pin down, smoke is a convenient receptacle for human ideas about the environment. Appearing out of the sky mysteriously and according to its own schedules, smoke could be anything. […] As it drifted across time and space, smoke carried the burdens of culturally-ascribed meaning even as it loaded human bodies with ash and anxiety. […] The problem was (and remains) a cultural one, rooted in expectations of smoke-free environments built over time and the parallel need to periodically burn boreal ecologies to prevent catastrophic wildfire. […] Given the enormous distances forest smoke can travel, understanding its nature has never been more critical.”
The smoke seasons we have now are a recent development resulting from a combination of climate change and modern forestry practice (or, to use a single word, capitalism). The unprecedented scale and frequency of wildfire in the northern hemisphere has made smoke a seasonal occurrence in skies around the world, rather than an occasional one. Over the last decade, ash regularly drifted from fires in Canada into northern Europe, altering forecasts on both continents, settling in Antarctic ice, and accelerating glacial melt rates.
However, smoke seasons lie within a longer history of human-smoke interaction (wild and domestic) stretching back into deep time. I hope that we can change our relationship with smoke so that we understand the difference between the healthy small smokes of boreal forests and the catastrophic smoke events from intensifying wildfire regimes. If we can do that, cultural and prescribed fire can become a tool we use to take care of our forests into the future.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 891029. This comic was originally published on April 4, 2023, and has been republished here.