Photo: Is climate change adding fuel to the forest flames?

(Credit: Sherwood411 via Flickr)

By Kyle Aben, climate change and clean energy policy analyst

Sydney Crosby played many games in which he didn't score a single point. We don't judge him on these scoreless games, but on all the games he played over his career to know he's an extraordinary player. The same concept should apply to climate change. It is difficult to attribute individual forest fires to climate change in the same way it is difficult to attribute individual weather events — such as heavy precipitation and flooding or extreme heat and drought— to climate change. Yet we know that with higher temperatures we are experiencing more severe weather events, and more forest fires.

Natural Resources Canada reports that Canada's temperature increased 1.5 C between 1950 and 2010, and further warming is inevitable. The whole country is expected to have warmer temperatures, more and heavier rainfalls and extreme heat events, and less ice and snow cover. Canada is susceptible to all the effects of climate change, including more forest fires.

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Forest fires need fuel, oxygen and heat. The warm weather dries out vegetation, creating fuel, wind provides the necessary oxygen and warmer temperatures enhance combustion. Dry, hot conditions are ideal for fires ignited by lightning. All these conditions are exacerbated by climate change and, over time, like Crosby's career, we see a remarkable increase in the number and size of forest fires.
In B.C. this year, 911 forest fires have been recorded. The average fire size over the past 10 years has been 58 hectares, but last year's forest fires averaged over 248 hectares. The trend this year toward bigger fires continues, with the average fire growing to 241 hectares early in the fire season.

This year's fire season arrived earlier than usual. Last year, B.C.'s fires did not spike until mid-July and lasted until the end of August. In Saskatchewan, this year's fire season also started with a vengeance: 582 forest fires already compared to 210 for all of 2014. The result has been devastating, with 54 community evacuations and poor air quality causing health concerns for those with respiratory and other illnesses.

This is shaping up to be a record year for fires across Canada. The southern boreal forest, stretching across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, is also at greater risk from the effects of climate change, especially fires, according to a recent IPPC report. All western provinces have issued total fire bans and weather forecasts across the country call for more hot weather.

Fire prevention and other adaptation measures will be essential as we prepare for hotter and drier summers. Although most fires are started by lightning, almost 40 per cent are caused by people. Provincial campfire bans and fire prevention education are needed to bring this number down. We must act now to help our growing communities adapt by creating buffers between towns and cities and surrounding forests. Budgets and resources for firefighting must be increased to keep up with the new climate realities.

Forest fires aren't just a matter of chance. How we approach, and prepare for, the increasing numbers and severity of forest fires depends on the choices we make today to cut greenhouse gas emissions and act on climate change.

July 9, 2015

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