Adapting to Disaster

By Daimen Hardie, Executive Director, Posted on June 12, 2023

Co-written by Daimen Hardie and Megan de Graaf.

As we write this, our communities in the Wabanaki region are reckoning with several wildfires, including the largest wildfire ever recorded in Nova Scotia. Homes for both people and wildlife have been lost, many families displaced, and acres of forest ecosystem gone. Forest stewards and caretakers have seen their forests disappear into smoke, triggering air quality alerts as far south as Virginia. We are grateful to have seen days of rain and cool weather starting to curtail these fires, and people starting to return to their homes.

This comes only months after we experienced the most intense cyclone in Canadian history. Hurricane Fiona left 40% of the population in Guadeloupe without water, caused an island-wide blackout in Puerto Rico, and blew down swaths of trees throughout Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. One climate disaster left us even more vulnerable to the next, with the post-Fiona windfall contributing fuel to these wildfires. 

These fires came about as a bit of a ‘perfect storm’. Decades of intensive management resulted in a simplified and degraded forest containing an over-representation of softwoods (typically more vulnerable to fire). Combined with a very dry spring, the forest was already vulnerable. And these fires started just before the canopy had fully leafed out – deciduous leaves are wet, and hardwoods tend to be less flammable than softwoods – further increasing that vulnerability.

Like the rest of the Canada, Atlantic Canada is getting hotter because of human-caused climate change. According to projections, summer temperatures in the Maritime provinces and Newfoundland and Labrador could be 2-4 C above normal by 2050.
– CBC Canada

Fire is not a common occurrence in the naturally diverse and resilient Wabanaki forest. Major stand-replacing forest fires have only occurred every few hundred years (historically) and in some areas, no wildfires have been recorded for upwards of 9,000 years. However, less than 1% of the forest landscape on the east coast today remains in that biodiverse and resilient state — the vast majority of our forests’ natural infrastructure has been degraded.

What does this mean for people? For some, it means their homes and family forests have been lost. The density of the Maritime Region means that wildfires are increasingly likely to impact the communities who live with and near the forests.

For all of us, this vulnerability means the region’s forests are teetering on the brink of no longer being a carbon sink but, instead, a source of emissions – and such disasters push forests closer and closer to that tipping point. In 2020 we heard a warning call from the world’s leading scientists—our window for limiting global heating at 1.5 °C is fast closing. That’s the heating threshold beyond which the impacts of climate breakdown become increasingly irreversible. We’re experiencing only the first stages of that reality today.

Today, we not only have to slow and mitigate climate change as rapidly as possible, by reducing and storing as much carbon as possible, but we also have to adapt and build resilience to the impacts on our communities that are already unfolding. Family forest stewards across the Wabanaki region have the privilege of living in and working with one of the greatest tools for resilience at our disposal – our forests. With careful and thoughtful management, many of these stewards are prioritizing climate and biodiversity goals – and that’s what will prevent the forest from becoming a source of further emissions instead of a carbon sink. 

That careful and thoughtful stewardship includes encouraging climate-adapted tree species over less-resilient ones, allowing forests to grow bigger and older, with deep moist soils, and building complexity so they are more resistant to disturbances, including fire. 

We are grateful that none of the special climate forests that Community Forests International cares were impacted by recent disasters. More than ever, we are ready to continue our work of demonstrating their climate-smart stewardship for the benefit of generations to come and communities today.