From Vancouver, where the hazy orange air smelled like a campfire last week, to smoke-clouded Saskatchewan, wildfires are adding even more scorch to a hot summer.
The fire season in Western Canada started early this year and with a vengeance. Lightning set off tinder-dry remote northern forests, augmented in the south by human stupidity ranging from dubiously tended campfires to criminal carelessness with discarded cigarette butts. Yes, still.
Experts say we’d better get used to this. Climate change is extending the wildfire season and increasing the intensity of the fires, adding risk to life, property and stretching provincial fire-fighting budgets.
In other words, we may have to get used to eating smoke more often.
You can’t point to any one big wildfire or bad season and finger climate change, any more than one bad storm can be blamed on climate-induced changes to weather patterns.
But based on recent trends, the outlook to the middle of this century is not good.
“Currently in Canada we average around 8,000 fires a year that burn about two million hectares, which is close to about half the size of Nova Scotia,” says Prof. Mike Flannigan of the University of Alberta’s department of renewable resources and one of Canada’s top experts on wildland fires.
“That’s like a 10-year running average. Back in the ‘70s it was about one million hectares, so we’ve doubled our area burned in the last 40-45 years.”
The increase has come in spite of advances in the way government agencies manage wildfires and an expansion of areas where they fight them aggressively, instead of letting them burn.
“But despite all those things the fire area burned has doubled,” Flannigan said in an interview. “I believe this is due to human-caused climate change.”
A discussion paper put together by B.C.’s Wildfire Management Branch as part of the province’s draft action plan to fight fires in an era of climate change offers a dire outlook if the planet continues warming.