BC Wildfire Service photo

Green Beat: The wicked problem of wildfires

Although ‘wicked problem’ sounds like a something from a fairytale, it is actually a technical term

  • Jul. 27, 2017 4:03 p.m.

By David Clements

My wife and I recently met up with a family of evacuees fleeing the forest fires in the Williams Lake area. It was amazing to see how calm they seemed in the midst of the serious threat to their home.

Although the term “wicked problem” sounds like a something from a fairytale, it is actually a technical term for a very complex problem.

A “normal” problem by comparison usually has a single solution to solve the problem if carried out correctly.

The “wicked” encountered in fairytales is a very appropriate adjective for complex problems.

It is like a dream — a nightmare — from which you can’t escape, and the more you to try to deal with the issues, the more you seem to lose the battle. It is always such a relief for me to wake up from such dreams.

One element of the current wicked problem in B.C. is an insect the size of a grain of rice — the mountain pine beetle. Scores of these native beetles have combined to infest over 18 million ha of forest in B.C., leaving lodgepole pines standing dead (and easy to burn) in their wake.

Another element of the wicked problem is climate change – with winters no longer being cold enough to kill the overwintering beetles, they have reached much higher numbers than normal.

Another human-caused element of the wicked problem (in addition to climate change) is the planting densities of these pines, allowing too much fuel to build up, especially near human habitations.

Another element of the wicked problem is that one of the best solutions is to “fight fire with fire” using prescribed burning, to reduce future fire risk. This is particularly “wicked” because fire itself is the very thing residents in areas vulnerable to fire are trying to avoid.

Fortunately, there are many experts and hard-working British Columbians up against this wicked problem.

We humans are blessed with both very complex minds and a whole lot of courage, both of which we see working to solve the wicked problem of wildfires in B.C.

Government agencies and researchers have done a lot of work to understand the problem and attempt to manage the fuel load that threatens communities like Ashcroft, Williams Lake and 100 Mile House.

Obviously that has not been enough to stop the fires stoked by the dry, windy weather conditions we have faced this year…so this is where courage comes in.

Kudos to the numerous officials managing the disaster throughout the province and to the thousands of firefighters from B.C. and elsewhere who have courageously taken on the challenge of this very wicked problem this summer. May they soon be rewarded for their efforts.

David Clements, Ph.D. is Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at Trinity Western University

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