The 2,117 wildfires that hit British Columbia in 2017 and the massive megafire that consumed much of Fort McMurray, Alberta a year earlier were both connected to climate change, and a similar impact is already visible as this year’s fire season gets under way, University of Alberta wildland fire specialist Mike Flannigan told The Canadian Press earlier this week.
“We are seeing climate change in action,” said Flannigan. who was involved in assessing the fire known as The Beast after it hit Fort Mac. “The Fort McMurray fire was 1½ to six times more likely because of climate change. The 2017 record-breaking B.C. fire season was seven to 11 times more likely because of climate change.”
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Flannigan’s conclusion was based on two research papers published earlier this year, The Canadian Press reports.
CP notes that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney prefers a more complex explanation for blazes like the Chuckegg Creek fire, still burning out of control south of the town of High Level. “I accept the science on anthropogenic climate change,” he told media last month. “But, in this particular instance, I can tell you we are on the five-year average for forest fires in Alberta. The large one right now is happening in an area where there has not been a fire for 80 years and so, regardless of other factors, it was due eventually for a large wildfire.”
Fire scientists say that storyline isn’t wrong, but it’s incomplete.
“Northern Alberta is covered by the boreal forest,” Flannigan said. “The boreal forest burns. It survives and thrives in a regime of semi-regular stand-replacing, stand-renewing high-intensity fire.”
However, “we burn about 2.5 million hectares a year on average—that’s using about a 10-year average,” he added. “It’s more than doubled since the late 60s and early 70s. Colleagues and I attribute this to human-caused climate change. I can’t be any more clear than that.”
While the 569 fires burning in Alberta as of last Friday were below the five-year average of 616, CP notes, the area burned had hit 6,692 square kilometres, far above the five-year average of 1,387. Flannigan cited longer fire seasons, drier fuels, and more lightning—which increases 10 to 12% with each degree of atmospheric warming—as the factors behind the increase in wildfires.
He added that both Alberta and B.C. are seeing an earlier start to the annual fire season. “Getting May fires up there is really early for that part of the province,” he told CP, referring to the Chuckegg Creek blaze, noting that that level of intensity would normally show up in July. “Same with the Fort McMurray fire—that fire started May 1.” In B.C., where the “busiest month” is typically August, the 2017 fire season began July 7, which “was really, really early for extreme fire weather for them.”