Dissertation Defense - Eric Kennedy

Built by Fire: Wildfire Management and Policy in Canada


Wildfire is an inescapable feature of Canadian landscapes, burning an average of over two million hectares annually and causing significant repercussions for communities, infrastructure, and resources. Because fire is managed provincially, each jurisdiction has developed a distinctive approach to preparing for, responding to, and recovering from fire on its landscapes. Using a comparative study between seven provinces and four national agencies, this dissertation examines differences in institutional design and policy with respect to the knowledge management systems required to respond to wildfire: How do policies and procedures vary between jurisdictions, how do they affect the practices of each fire management agency, and how can they be improved through a critical analysis of the knowledge management systems in use? And, what is the role of and limits on expertise within these fire management institutions that manage high-risk, highly uncertain socio-environmental challenges? I begin by introducing the 2016 Fort McMurray/Horse River fire as a lens for exploring these questions. I then use the past one hundred years of fire history in Canada to illustrate the continual presence of fire, its human and social dimensions, and the evolution of differing fire management regimes. Drawing on extended ethnographic observation and interviewing of fire managers across Canada, I examine the varied provincial systems of response through following an active fire day in Alberta. I analyze the decision support and geospatial information systems used to guide fire agency decision-making, as well as the factors that limit their effectiveness in both response and hazard reduction modes.

I begin Part Two with a discussion of mutual aid arrangements between the provinces, and critically examine the core strategy – interagency fungibility – used to allow this exchange. I analyze forecasting and predictive models used in firefighting, with an emphasis on comparing advantages and disadvantages of attempts at predicting future firefighter capacity requirements. I review organizational learning approaches, considering both fire research strategies and after action reviews. Finally, I consider the implication of changes in climates, politics, and public behaviours and their impacts on fire management.


Chair - Daniel Sarewitz
Stephen Pyne
Clark Miller

Coor Hall, room 5536