A helicopter battles a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday May 4, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

‘Climate change in action:’ Scientist says fires in Alberta linked to climate change

Alberta Wildfire data shows that, as of Friday, there were 569 wildfires in the province

In May 2016, a wildfire near Fort McMurray forced more than 80,000 people to flee the northern Alberta city, destroyed 2,400 buildings and burned nearly 6,000 square kilometres of forest.

A year later, the fire season in British Columbia broke records as 2,117 blazes consumed more than 12,000 square kilometres of bush.

Both have been connected to climate change in two separate research papers published earlier this year by scientists with Environment and Climate Change Canada.

As another extreme fire season starts with more people on the run, scientists say they are already seeing signs that climate change is playing a role again.

“We are seeing climate change in action,” says University of Alberta wildland fire Prof. Mike Flannigan.

“The Fort McMurray fire was 1 1/2 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.”

The largest community evacuated in Alberta so far this year has been High Level. The vast Chuckegg Creek fire still churns in the woods south of town. It grew to 2,660 square kilometres in the first few weeks and remains one of several blazes currently burning out-of-control in the province.

READ MORE: Wildfire near Canada/U.S. border reaches 47 hectares, out of control

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has repeatedly said the cause of the fires is complex.

“I accept the science on anthropogenic climate change,” he said at a news conference 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.”

Kenney’s comments aren’t wrong, but fire scientists say they don’t tell the whole story.

“Northern Alberta is covered by the boreal forest,” says Flannigan. “The boreal forest burns. It survives and thrives in a regime of semi-regular stand-replacing, stand-renewing high-intensity fire.”

It takes time for scientists to research and connect individual events to climate change, but Flannigan says it has become a major factor in Canadian fire seasons.

“We burn about 2.5 million hectares a year on average — that’s using about a 10-year average,” he says. “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.”

READ MORE: B.C. sends 267 firefighters to help battle Alberta wildfires

Most fire experts use a 10-year average for comparisons but, even using a five-year model, the number of fires in Alberta so far this year is already closing in on that number.

Alberta Wildfire data shows that, as of Friday, there were 569 wildfires in the province. The five-year average is 616. But they have already burned nearly 6,692 square kilometres, much higher than the five-year average of 1,387 square kilometres.

“There’s been a lot of research that’s shown as we warm, we get more fire,” says Flannigan.

He says there are three reasons: longer fire seasons; drier fuels and more lightning, which research has shown is increasing by 10 to 12 per cent with every degree of warming.

“Increasing temperatures, like those observed across Canada, will lead to drier fuels, and thus increased fire potential, as well as longer fire seasons,” says a federal report that looked into the Fort McMurray fire.

“The study demonstrated that the extreme Alberta wildfire of 2016 occurred in a world where anthropogenic warming has increased fire risk, fire spread potential, and the length of fire seasons across parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan.”

A study by federal scientists into British Columbia’s 2017 wildfire season found the area burned was seven to 11 times larger than it would have been without human influences on the climate.

Extreme high temperatures combined with dry conditions increased the likelihood of wildfire ignition and spread, the report says.

There’s already one sign that climate change is playing a role on the Chuckegg Creek fire near High Level, says Flannigan.

“Getting May fires up there is really early for that part of the province,” he says, explaining the area would normally start seeing fires in July. “Same with the Fort McMurray fire — that fire started May 1.

“The 2017 fire season in British Columbia — their busiest month is August — it started July 7 and that was really, really early for extreme fire weather for them.”

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Comments are closed

Just Posted

Interior Health will not expand Police and Crisis Team

Southeast Division Chief Superintendent Brad Haugli asked IH to expand the program

High water and flooding hits Clearwater

Potential for roadblock on Clearwater Valley Road due to potential washouts

Tk’emlups, Simpcw First Nations chiefs call on Tiny House Warriors to leave Blue River protest camp

“The Tiny House Warriors are not from Simpcw, nor are they our guests in our territory.”

District of Barriere Utilities Manager reports to council on Barriere wells

District of Barriere Utilities Manager Ian Crosson presented a verbal report during… Continue reading

Thunder rolls and the North Thompson River is still rising

With a wet start to summer in the North Thompson area, Environment… Continue reading

B.C. accommodators need phone lines to light up as in-province travel given green light

Travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic have decimated the tourism and hospitality industries

300 Cache Creek residents on evacuation alert due to flood risk as river rises

Heavy rainfall on Canada Day has river rising steadily, threatening 175 properties

First glimpse of Canada’s true COVID-19 infection rate expected mid-July

At least 105,000 Canadians have tested positive for COVID-19 since the coronavirus was identified

Police ramp up efforts to get impaired drivers off B.C. roads this summer

July is dedicated to the Summer CounterAttack Impaired Driving Campaign

Migrant workers stage multi-city action for full status amid COVID-19 risks

‘COVID-19 has exacerbated an existing crisis’

Okanagan school drops ‘Rebels’ sports team name, citing links with U.S. Civil War

Name and formerly-used images “fly in the face” of the district’s human rights policy, says board chair

PHOTOS: B.C.’s top doc picks up personalized Fluevog shoes, tours mural exhibition

Murals of Gratitude exhibit includes at least one portrait of Henry alongside paintings of health-care workers

In troubled times: Independence Day in a land of confusion

Buffeted by invisible forces and just plain worn out, the United States of America celebrates its 244th birthday

Stop enforcing sex work laws during COVID-19, advocates say

There are provisions in Canada’s prostitution laws that make workers immune from prosecution, but not from arrest

Most Read