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A Glimpse into the Concept of Wildfire as a Shared Arctic Variable (SAV): Summary of Experiences

Written by Mike Morrison

During the process of preparing two expert panels on the theme of wildfire as a Shared Arctic Variable (SAV), I was given the opportunity to broaden my understanding of an extremely dynamic environmental process -wildfire regimes. I cannot express the gratitude I have for the WDS-ITO and the SAON ROADs team for allowing me to build upon the concept of SAVs and the wildfire theme. 

I started by creating an open-source public access Zotero library that captures a wide variety of research and interest on the theme of wildfires in the Arctic region, which then fostered a synthesis document and excel spreadsheet on available Earth observing assets in collaboration with multiple working groups. This experience has been one of the most enlightening and rewarding opportunities of my professional career. I have been encouraged to highlight some of the challenges faced during this process, which include: (1) the lack of a consistent approach to wildfire reporting and common terminology by each country in the Arctic region, (2) the overall absence of Indigenous engagement and disregard for traditional knowledge in modern wildfire management practices, and (3) the dynamic nature of fire itself prompts many responses on how to effectively manage wildfire events in practice, leading to multiple interpretations of the same phenomenon. Inconsistent approaches to reporting and a murky relationship between terms has resulted in critical information gaps in data; the focus on wildfire suppression and absence of Indigenous Fire Stewardship in modern wildfire practices highlights the need for a shared understanding; and the importance of context when discussing wildfire themes is highly relevant. For example, prescribed burning activities require certain conditions to occur without inadvertently causing more harm than good (i.e., wind conditions, timing of year, high-intensity burns vs. low-intensity burns etc.).

The one message I want to share from my experience throughout this process is that active engagement, open dialogue, and collaboration with a wide variety of groups interested in a common theme are the critical building blocks to creating a holistic solution to an interdisciplinary problem – especially when considering multiple scales (i.e., local, regional, global). The challenge I pose for the expert panels moving forward is to remain conscious and respectful of multiple perspectives when discussing similar concepts or approaches, while also maintaining a broad focus on the theme of wildfire and associated impacts. The lessons learned during your deliberations will set a benchmark for wildfire management best practices in the Arctic region – a necessary endeavor in the wake of a changing climate with global implications. From my perspective, collaboratives are designed to establish a social consensus that then provides a meaningful path forward for all participants. However, in the context of wildfires, focusing on a single outcome such as fuel loading or suppression may marginalize the importance of other critical functions, such as wildlife habitat or ecosystem services. Developing a truly holistic approach to wildfire management requires a commitment, by all parties who are experts in their own right, to recognize the importance of active listening and respectful engagement between groups. It is my opinion that this is fundamental to the success of SAVs in general in addressing extremely dynamic challenges.

I wanted to take this opportunity to wish good luck to the wildfire expert panels and those working towards similar goals in associated SAV themes, such as living on frozen ground or permafrost, and sea ice, and will close this post by sharing a brief story that I believe captures the importance and true meaning of SAV work within the theme of wildfire:

‘During my time with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) as a Type I Fire Ranger from 2013-2018, I was dispatched to Kasabonika Lake First Nation in Northern Ontario to respond to a wildfire. We were asked to provide an update to the local community to address any public safety concerns regarding the incident. The phrase ”no values are threatened at this time” was used by a member of my crew to describe the current fire behavior, as well as the likelihood of the fire reaching any local infrastructure. However, this comment did not necessarily capture other considerations (i.e. trap lines, unmarked cabins, culturally sensitive areas etc.) which were indeed at risk and critically important to the community. With the help of community members, we were able to identify, locate, and respond to additional areas at risk. This experience illustrates the importance of open dialogue, active engagement, and respectful listening between groups during an emergency.’


Mike Morrison