Firefighter sets a back-burn to contain the Meldrum Creek wildfire complex, spreading east towards Williams Lake, August 2010. (B.C. Forest Service)

Hype doesn’t help forest fire efforts

Andrew Weaver’s climate change claim doesn’t match reality

Coming off the coldest winter in recorded history for much of B.C. and a cold, wet spring, B.C. Greens leader Andrew Weaver is trying to blame the latest round of forest fires on conditions created by human-caused global warming. That global warming is the reason for such natural disasters happening more frequently in B.C.

“Sadly, as the effects of climate change take hold, events like the wildfires displacing so many British Columbians are becoming increasingly common,” Weaver announced from his leafy Oak Bay constituency.

After relentless cold this past winter, B.C. has barely finished coping with floods due to unusually high snowpack that continued to grow through May and still hasn’t melted entirely.

And now fires, presented once again as a new, unprecedented threat. But they are not new. I’ve been chronicling provincial fire seasons for many years, Weaver’s statement is just another brazen political falsehood.

This year’s fires are not actually a result of increasingly hot and dry conditions. The stretch of hot weather and dry conditions in the first couple of weeks of July can be common place for this time of year.

Communities in the fire-based forest ecosystems of the B.C. Interior are facing their biggest threat since 2003. But this season’s crisis began when a dry lightning storm passing through the arid B.C. Interior on July 6, resulting in 56 reports of new fire starts. By the weekend, there were 140 starts reported in a day and a provincial state of emergency had been declared, due to the proximity of communities.

There were similar dry lightning events in 2015 and previous years, but they did not strike along the populated Highway 97 corridor, and got little attention. To cite one of many examples, Williams Lake was almost evacuated in 2010, when the Meldrum Creek fire complex approached 500 square kilometres and looked ready to jump the Fraser River from the west. Smoke was drifting into Manitoba.

By last week, the total since April 1 passed 600 new fire starts, compared to just under 500 at the same time in 2016. But the area burned last year was almost twice as big, due to April grass fires that spread into boreal forest in the Peace region and into Alberta where the Fort McMurray fire was closing in. An average B.C. forest fire season is around 2,000 reported fires.

Foresters don’t generally cite climate change, however one defines that slippery term, unless prompted by reporters. They talk about decades of fire suppression that artificially built up fuel loads across vast areas, and the huge costs facing communities trying to mitigate that situation. They talk about bark beetle infestations that add to the fuel load from decadent forests that must burn and always have burned to regenerate themselves.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca Twitter: @tomfletcherbc