Canadians have been appalled by the Fort McMurray Fire. But, Ed Strurzik writes, some people saw it coming:
Fire scientists and fire managers actually saw this coming back in 2009 when 70 of them gathered in Victoria to address the issue of climate change and what impact it was going to have on the forest fire situation in Canada. Each one of them was already well aware that fires were burning bigger, hotter, faster, and in more unpredictable ways than ever before.
''We're exceeding thresholds all the time,'' said Mike Flannigan, who was at the time a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service. ''We'd better start acting soon.''
The dragon in the woods is climate change:
There are a number of reasons why fires are going to burn bigger, hotter, faster, and more often in the future. There are more people living and working in the boreal forest, and like it or not, people start a lot of fires -- more than half that occur in Canada. And in fighting fires so religiously to protect valuable timber, oil sands, pipelines and communities, we've created an unnaturally large amount of old growth forest in the boreal, where spruce and pine are prevalent and highly combustible.
But there isn't an expert out there who doubts that climate change is the biggest reason why we're losing the battle to control wildfires.
For every one degree of warming, there needs to be 15 per cent more precipitation to keep the fine combustible fuels on the ground sufficiently moist. So if temperatures rise by about three degrees by the end of the century, which is as conservative an estimate as there is, we'll need 45 per cent more rain. Flannigan says there is nothing in the climate models that suggest we'll come close. In fact, we're likely to get less precipitation in some areas.
More heat is also going to result in more lightning, which currently accounts for 85 per cent of the area burned in Canada. Typically, lightning occurs in clusters where there can be 50 to 100 strikes in a day. But increasingly we're seeing lightning events such as the one that occurred in Alaska last year when a slow-moving storm unleashed 50,000 lightning strikes in just five days. More than five million acres of trees were destroyed in a fire season that turned out to be second worst in the state's history. No one had ever seen anything like it.
What's more, insects like the mountain pine beetle and the spruce bark beetle that kill or weaken mature spruce and pine will continue to proliferate in these warmer environments, adding fuel for combustion.
Premier Brad Wall wants a national fire strategy -- a good idea. But, so far, he -- and many others -- have had little policy to offer on climate change. Without those policies, fires like the Fort Mac Fire will be bigger, hotter and more frequent.