The second-largest forest fire in British Colombian history. The town of Chibougamau, Quebec, evacuated in the middle of the night. A Halifax suburb burned down. Toronto and Montreal covered in smog. All of this occurring as early as May and June.
The current forest fires raging across Canada are a graphic illustration of the havoc that capitalism brings to this planet. We must fight for a socialist revolution to end this nightmare.
From coast to coast to coast, a country on fire
In recent years, apocalyptic scenes of orange skies and smoke-smothered cities have started to become the norm in Western Canada, a fact that’s deplorable enough on its own. This wildfire season is already proving to be qualitatively different, with one province after another igniting in fires that are reaching historic scales.
Nova Scotia has seen the largest wildfires in its history, the worst of which are still burning out of control. Last year set a record for the province with 3,390 hectares destroyed by fire; this year, that number has already reached 22,000.
In Quebec, where there are over 150 wildfires burning, the provincial government has admitted that they don’t have the resources to fight the fires, leaving 110 to burn out of control. The smoke from the Quebec and Ontario fires is sweeping southward, placing New York City and Toronto at the top of the list of cities with the worst air quality in the world.
Ontario has already seen double the number of wildfires as in 2022. In British Columbia, the second-largest wildfire in its history is currently burning. Fires are also hitting New Brunswick and the Northwest Territories. While Alberta has lifted the state of emergency that it implemented in May, there are still over 70 wildfires burning at the time of writing, 22 of them out of control.
The view of downtown Toronto from my balcony. Expecting the smoke to get worse through the day. pic.twitter.com/VzuGtFOhNN— James McLeod (@jamespmcleod) June 7, 2023
The impact of the fires has been devastating for communities across the country, as people are evacuated and homes destroyed. In Nova Scotia, the fires reached the suburbs of Halifax, burning up 151 homes, and leaving 4,000 of the initial 16,000 evacuees displaced for the foreseeable future. In Alberta, more remote Indigenous communities have been hard hit, to no less devastating effect. Raymond Supernault, chairperson of the East Prairie Métis Settlement, was quoted saying, “The fire took everything in its path. A lot of people are in shock right now, just to go back to see our community. They’re looking at the houses that burnt that are not there no more. These are our neighbours, our friends, our relatives that lost a lot of houses.”
In total so far, 120,000 people across the country have been forced from their homes. An area of about 13 times the 10-year average has been burned, totaling 3.3 million hectares.
And it’s only the beginning of the summer.
Incompetence of capitalist governments
As we wrote about the Alberta wildfires in May, “Wildfires may be natural, but the lack of preparedness was man-made.” The governing UCP has been slashing firefighting resources for years—shutting down lookout towers; laying off rapattackers, rangers, and information officers, and cutting the length of the season during which wildfire personnel are employed. These seem like the actions of a wildly reckless government, but similar patterns have emerged across the country.
Since becoming the chief of Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency in 2017, Ken Stuebing has warned time and time again that the firefighting budget was too small, and that they did not have enough training material nor enough firefighters. Chief Stuebing was particularly concerned about wildfires, going so far as to say that back in 2022, the fear of them keeps him up at night as the Halifax Regional Municipality did not have the resources needed to fight any serious wildfires.
Compounding the difficulties facing the province is the fact that, particularly in rural areas, much of the firefighting is done with volunteer firefighters who do it to serve their community. This has become an increasing concern as many volunteer firefighters are now aging out, and there isn’t enough money to train new ones. Also, as the economy continues to flounder, more and more people are forced to work multiple jobs leaving them with neither time nor energy to help their communities. As Chief Stuebing put it, “people of younger generations are working two or three jobs just to barely keep up with living expenses, even if they wanted to, could they afford the time to volunteer? Especially knowing that some of the calls would be highly traumatic?”
The Ontario fire rangers’ union, OPSEU, put out a statement stating cutbacks are making it harder to fight fires. In an attempt by the Ontario government to pinch some pennies, firefighters in northern Ontario are no longer offered permanent contracts; instead, firefighters are only offered three- or six-month contracts. This has made it incredibly difficult to recruit people as workers look towards the stability of more permanent employment. Before, when firefighters in northern Ontario received permanent contracts, firefighters would spend the off-season clearing brush and doing other activities to reduce the risk of wildfires. Now the union says they are short 50 crews to adequately protect the province against forest fires.
Quebec too is dismally unprepared. The province is running out of planes and pilots to fight the fires, and in general does not have the resources to bring even half of the wildfires under control. The Quebec government is instead forced to wait for reinforcements from the Canadian army, and from international volunteers from the United States, Portugal, and France.
As the saying goes, “once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.” The consistency of these governments’ failure to prepare for, mitigate, and fight wildfires is a failure of the entire capitalist system. It is symptomatic of the decay of capitalism that the ruling class is unable to anticipate problems that are guaranteed to reappear every year, even at the risk of loss of property and profit.
In May, Canada’s GDP saw its greatest decline for that month in the last seven years off the back of the Alberta wildfires. At first glance, this would appear to run counter to the interests of capital. But at this point it should come as no surprise that the ruling class fails to consider the long-term costs of disasters that fall on the working class, when there are piddling short-term gains to be made from cutting services, regulations, wages, and working conditions. We saw this in Turkey when their government allowed the construction of buildings that could not withstand earthquakes, and in Pakistan when neighbourhoods were built on floodplains—decisions that cost tens of thousands of lives. On a global scale we saw this with the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, with refusals to share patents or cooperate internationally, and cuts being made to health care even as people were dying in overcrowded hospitals. In a system in terminal decline, the ruling class cannot think beyond the next fiscal quarter. Any consequences that fall outside that timeline might as well not exist—particularly because it will inevitably be the working class who pays for disasters with austerity, wage cuts, and our very lives.
Socialism or disaster
The inferno currently engulfing Canada did not erupt without warning. All predictions point to the situation continuing to degenerate. According to Natural Resources Canada, the annual national cost of wildland fire protection exceeded $1 billion for six of the last 10 years, and on average, costs have risen about $150 million per decade since they first started collecting this kind of data in 1970. A study by Public Safety Canada also found that since 1970, the area that has been burned by wildland fires has doubled, and they are predicting that it will double again before the end of the century. As climate change continues to affect temperatures and weather patterns, wildfire “season” is disappearing and turning into a year-round problem. Chief Stuebing pointed out, “We used to have a fire season. There is no such thing as a fire season anymore. We have wildland fires in some winters where we don’t have a lot of snow cover or precipitation, even in the middle of winter.”
HUGE shoutout to all wildland fire crews from Alberta, out-of-province, out-of-country, and our military...— Kyle Brittain (@KyleBrittainWX) May 21, 2023
You're doing an OUTSTANDING job out there in a very challenging season.
THANK YOU, on behalf of all Albertans #abfire #ABwildfire pic.twitter.com/UUc1rU6i9f
In order to combat these frightening trends, the federal government has pledged $346 million to train 1,000 firefighters and to support provinces and territories acquiring new firefighting equipment. They have also made plans to launch a satellite system that will monitor wildland fires from orbit, but the satellite system will not launch until 2029. By their own admission, however, mitigation and prevention are critical factors in stopping wildfires. The federal government hasn’t mentioned what preventative measures they’re planning to take, if any.
Moreover, federal and provincial governments continue to drag their feet on addressing the main cause of intensifying wildfire seasons: climate change. As the temperatures rise, soil and foliage dry out, and the drought-like conditions create perfect conditions for wildfires. A recent study by Environmental Research linked the drying out of the environment in Western Canada and the U.S. to the top 88 carbon-producing companies in the world, the majority of which are fossil fuel companies. The study found a direct link between their increased production and an increase in the number and severity of wildfires in the West. The ruling class has no problem making profits while the working class burns, and as obvious as this may seem, the representatives of the ruling class are determined to deny the facts.
When asked in the provincial legislature to draw the connection between climate change and wildfires, Ontario Premier Doug Ford refused, saying, “I’m actually in shock that the Leader of the Opposition is politicizing wildfires. It’s staggering, really. But nothing surprises me with the opposition.” Instead of committing to take any action, he simply asked Ontarians to not light any campfires.
Similarly, Halifax Mayor Mike Savage was quoted as saying, “This is a clear violation of the no stupid policy if ever there is one. I think everyone can understand that. Don’t do it. It doesn’t just affect you; it affects your neighbors and affects the fire personnel that are fighting these fires.” The government has continued to pump out material reminding Nova Scotians about the fire ban, and warning people if they’re caught with illegal burns, they will receive a $25,000 fine. While human activity is typically the cause of 50 per cent of wildfires, 85 per cent of the destruction in wildfire season is caused by fires sparked by lightening. Blaming campers is a blatant attempt to shrug responsibility off onto the shoulders of working class Canadians.
For the average Canadian worker currently choking on wood smoke, the governments’ response is clearly inadequate. So what are we to do besides pray for rain?
We need massive investment not only in firefighting, but also in prevention, through managing ecosystems and maintaining preparedness. We need to entirely retool industry to operate as cleanly as possible, while developing and shifting to renewable energy sources. We need to think in terms of generations, not fiscal quarters, and we need to do this internationally. But none of this will happen under the capitalist system.
A socialist government would take over the banks, the big companies and services, and implement a rational economic plan under workers’ control. This would ensure that firefighting and emergency services are well funded. Money currently being wasted on imperialist war, bailouts for the rich, and corporate welfare could be used to massively invest in the infrastructure needed to protect people against climate-related disasters like wildfires and floods, and accelerate the transition to renewable energy. Instead of environmentally destructive policies like clear-cutting old-growth forest and building pipelines that accelerate the climate crisis, a socialist society oriented around human need would invest in protecting ecosystems and sustainably managing them.
The capitalists who run society are proving that they would rather let the world burn than take any necessary action; therefore it is the task of the working class to relieve them of their position. This is class war, and the capitalists have a scorched-earth policy. To survive it, the workers need a revolution.