climate change

Climate Change Has Made Devastating Wildfires the New Normal

We did this to ourselves.

by Mack Lamoureux
Jul 19 2017, 4:03pm

The Fort McMurray fire. Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward

The west is burning and it feels like there isn't much we can do about it.

Several fires in British Columbia have, at last count, forced around 40,000 people to evacuate from their BC homes because of a massive wildfire tearing through the province. Twelve communities are currently threatened, 3,000 firefighters are currently fighting them, and almost $100 million has been spent fighting the fires so far.

The drifting smoke from these fires has affected several provinces air quality and over 300,000 hectares have burnt. Fire isn't just a northern beast, though, if you look south to America you can see wildfires throwing their weight around in California, South Dakota, Oregon, and Arizona, just to name a few. Last year we saw one of the most devastating wildfires on record in Canada as a massive blaze dubbed "the Beast" tore through Fort McMurray and Alberta. Now, these fires don't just carry a cost of human misery with them, they cost an insane amount of money to fight and rebuild afterwards—at an estimated $9 billion, the Fort McMurray fire was the most costly disaster in Canadian history.

The statistic that there was no fatalities as a result of that fire is something which gets trotted out a lot. But it can't be forgotten that during the evacuation 15-year-old Emily Ryan and 19-year-old Aaron Hodgson ran head on into a logging truck and were killed. Their family—including Emily's father, a firefighter who was taking on the Beast at the time of her death—had to deal with their loss in a hockey arena turned into makeshift evacuation centre.

Have no doubt, we pay for these fires in misery, cold hard cash, and lives. All this leads us towards a horrifying question: Is this carnage the new normal?

"Is it the new normal? Yeah, I'm going to say it is," Dr. Mike Flannigan, the director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta, told VICE. "I'm not going to say every year is going to be a bad fire year, there might be some years that will be cool and wet but we're going to see more of these.

"Fort McMurray was not a fluke or a one-off. You can go back to to 2003 in Kelowna, go back to 2011 in Slave Lake, 2016 in Fort McMurray, and now 2017 in BC with all these fires."

Flannigan explains that, obviously, there is a connection between temperature and wildfires. To put it simply, Flannigan said, "the warmer it gets, the more fire we get." There are three components to how climate change affects the size, duration, and intensity of wildfires. The first is the fire season which is getting longer in the west where it has been pushed back by a month in Alberta, and in Ontario it starts earlier. The second is, as Flannigan said, "the warmer it is, the more lightning you have"—all things being equal, more lightning means more fires.

"The third reason, and I think the most important is, the warmer it gets the dryer the fuels get," said Flannigan. "As the temperature increases, the evaporation increases and it sucks the moisture out of the fuel. Which means it's easier for fires to start and spread."

Infographic courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists .

The last three years in a row have all been globally the hottest on record and temperatures are set to keep increasing as time goes on. Now, we're starting to see the real world damage coming from climate change—a thing that for many is simply an abstract concept. The amount of area burned in the west has nearly doubled in the last 30 years—other factors, such as housing and burning habits play into this as well, of course.

The burning of wildfires is an important and natural part of an ecosystem like the boreal forest but the size and behaviour of these fires are anything but normal. More research needs to be done to see exactly what the effects will be on a local level but on a global level for North America, the wildfire season is going to get longer and the fires will get more severe. This change will not impact every area equally but Flannigan said, the boreal forest and climate of western Canada make it an area of particular risk. Dr. Toddi Steelman, the executive director at the University of Saskatchewan's School of Environment and Sustainability, explained that while it may feel like we have more fires that's not exactly true—the fires are just larger and more intense.

If this all hasn't been depressing enough for you, well, here's another fun fact. With the larger fires comes a positive feedback loop with climate change—something Flannigan described as a "vicious cycle." Essentially, as the fires burn greenhouse gases are released en mass into the atmosphere which exacerbates climate change which in turn exacerbates wildfires. Furthermore, Flannigan explained, the complex carbons in soot released in a fire's plume can float in the atmosphere to, say, Greenland, and cause the country's ice sheet to melt faster.

Both Steelman and Flannigan explained that one of the main concerns comes from the fact that people keep moving to the sticks. "What is a big change is that we have more people living in places affected by fires," Steelman told VICE. This includes people moving to BC, and the forested areas in Alberta and Saskatchewan. These areas are also home to many Indigenous communities that are at risk. If people live in these areas, Steelman said, "we will certainly see people affected as we have larger fires and they burn into those areas."

"Yes, we're going to have more wildfire activity but the real challenge is we have more people living in the wildland urban interface which is the place where the forest and the fires can potentially come together and so, for me, it's what do with those people and how do we plan for that inevitably of that fire coming so that we can mitigate the risk," she said.

"The bottom line is there is going to be fire, there is going to be devastating fires, and we need to learn how to co-exist with it," Flannigan said.

There are things communities and individuals can do to mitigate the risk of fires. The biggest being reducing human caused fires—over 50 percent of fires started in Alberta are human caused. If you live in one of the at-risk communities you can do numerous things that range from creating fire breaks around a community to checking and changing kind of shingles you have. Prescribed burns, although not popular, Flannigan said, can do wonders. A promising trend is, after Fort McMurray, several cities and towns have woken up to the fact that steps need to be taken to reduce risk of these fires, when they're raging, affecting their communities.

At the end of all this, though, exists two simple and hard truths. The first is that these fires aren't going away and are, more likely than not, going to get worse.

The second is, we did this to ourselves.

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