LETTER: Wildfires are a climate change wake-up call

LETTER: Wildfires are a climate change wake-up call

It’s not just B.C. Thousands of people from California have also fled homes as fires rage. Greenland is experiencing the largest blaze ever recorded, one that Prof. Stef Lhermitte of Delft University in the Netherlands called “a rare and unusual event.” Fires have also spread throughout Europe, North America, Africa and elsewhere. In June, dozens of people died in what’s being called Portugal’s worst fire ever. Meanwhile, from Saskatchewan to Vietnam to New Zealand, floods have brought landslides, death and destruction.

What will it take to wake us up to the need to address climate change? Fires and floods have always been here, and are often nature’s way of renewing ecosystems — but as the world warms, they’re increasing in frequency, size and severity. Experts warn wildfires could double in number in the near future, with the Pacific Northwest seeing five or six times as many.

In the western U.S., annual average temperatures have increased by 2 degrees Celcius and the fire season has grown by three months since the 1970s, leading to “new era of western wildfires,” according to a recent study led by University of Colorado Boulder wildfire experts, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Climate change doesn’t necessarily start the fires — lightning, unattended campfires, carelessly tossed cigarette butts and sparks from machinery are major causes — but it creates conditions for more and larger fires. Lightning, which causes up to 35 per cent of Canada’s wildfires and is responsible for 85 per cent of the area burned annually, increases as temperatures rise, with studies showing 12 per cent more lightning strikes for each degree Celsius of warming.

Drier, shorter winters and earlier snowmelt extend fire seasons. As the atmosphere warms, it holds more moisture, some of which it draws from forests and wetlands, and increasing precipitation is not enough to offset the drying. This means fuel sources ignite more easily and fires spread faster over greater areas. Outbreaks of pests such as mountain pine beetles — previously kept in check by longer, colder winters — have also killed and dried forests, adding fuel to the fires. Because trees and soils hold moisture on slopes, fires can also increase the risk of flash floods when rains finally arrive.

The human and economic impacts are staggering — from property destruction to firefighting and prevention to loss of valuable resources and ecosystems. As human populations expand further into wild areas, damages and costs are increasing.

Health impacts from smoke put people — especially children and the elderly — at risk and drive health care costs up. Wildfires now kill more than 340,000 people a year, mainly from smoke inhalation.

Fires also emit CO2, creating feedback loops and exacerbating climate change. Boreal forests in Canada and Russia store large amounts of carbon and help regulate the climate, but they’re especially vulnerable to wildfires.

Suggested solutions are wide-ranging. The authors of the PNAS study recommend letting some wildfires burn in areas uninhabited by people, setting more “controlled” fires to reduce undergrowth fuels and create barriers, thinning dense forests, discouraging development in fire-prone areas and strengthening building codes.

These adaptive measures are important, as are methods to prevent people from sparking fires, but our primary focus should be on doing all we can to slow global warming.

According to NASA, Earth’s average surface temperature has risen by 1.1 C since the late 19th century, with most warming occurring over the past 35 years, and 16 of the 17 warmest years occurring since 2001. Eight months of 2016 were the warmest on record. Oceans have also been warming and acidifying quickly, Arctic ice has rapidly decreased in extent and thickness, glaciers are retreating worldwide, and sea levels have been rising at an accelerating pace. Record high temperature events have been increasing while low temperature events have decreased, and extreme weather events are becoming more common in many areas.

Today’s wildfires are a wake-up call. If we are serious about our Paris Agreement commitments, we can’t build more pipelines, expand oil sands, continue fracking or exploit extreme Arctic and deep-sea oil.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from Ian Hanington.

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

Just Posted

NDIT logo.
NDIT grants over $160K to Vanderhoof for street lighting project on Burrard

Total cost of the project is approximately $380,000

Internet speeds in Vanderhoof have been a cause of concern for many local businesses. (File photo)
Lack of good connectivity puts rural communities at a disadvantage: Vanderhoof Mayor

The district is working with RDBN to get better internet facilities to town.

District of Vanderhoof municipal office. (Aman Parhar/Omineca Express)
Vanderhoof business can apply for a façade improvement program

The program provides funding up to $5,000 to update the look of the commercial property façade.

Kiah Thiessen-Clark and Kate Thiessen-Clark from W.L. McLeod Elementary won third place in their grade during the science fair held by School District 91. (SD91/website)
SD91 District holds Science Fair; announces 2021 finalists

Several finalists were from EBUS Academy and W.L. McLeod Elementary

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry head for the B.C. legislature press theatre to give a daily update on the COVID-19 pandemic, April 6, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. nears 300,000 COVID-19 vaccinations, essential workers next

564 new cases, four deaths, no new outbreaks Thursday

Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne speaks in the B.C. legislature, March 4, 2021. (Hansard TV)
B.C. Liberals, NDP sing in harmony on local election reforms

Bill regulates paid canvassers, allows people in condo buildings

(National Emergency Management Agency)
No tsunami risk to B.C. from powerful New Zealand earthquake: officials

An 8.1 magnitude earthquake shook the north of New Zealand Thursday morning

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
Pandemic stress, isolation key factors as to why Canadians turned to cannabis, alcohol

Study found that isolation played key role in Canadians’ substance use

Grand Forks’ Gary Smith stands in front of his Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster float. Photo: Submitted
Grand Forks’ Flying Spaghetti Monster leader still boiling over driver’s licence photo

Gary Smith, head of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster of B.C., said he has since spoken to lawyers

A Cowichan Valley mom is wondering why masks haven’t been mandated for elementary schools. (Metro Creative photo)
B.C. mom frustrated by lack of mask mandate for elementary students

“Do we want to wait until we end up like Fraser Health?”

(Pxhere)
B.C. research reveals how pandemic has changed attitudes towards sex, health services

CDC survey shows that 35 per cent of people were worried about being judged

Some Canadians are finding butter harder than usual, resulting in an avalanche of social media controversy around #buttergate. (Brett Williams/The Observer)
#Buttergate: Concerns around hard butter hit small B.C. towns and beyond

Canadians find their butter was getting harder, blame palm oil in part one of this series

Most Read