Dis­as­ter looms

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL -

We must come to grips with the fact that cli­mate change is a lead­ing fac­tor for dis­as­trous for­est fires in Western Canada. The At­lantic re­gion should take warn­ing that’s it’s never too early to bol­ster its readi­ness be­cause sim­i­lar events could very eas­ily hap­pen here.

As we have seen in Al­berta and Bri­tish Columbia, fires can ex­plode into dan­ger­ous catas­tro­phes in a very short time to threaten peo­ple and their prop­erty. It was a long, hot, dry sum­mer in At­lantic Canada in 2016. Bans on burn­ing and camp­fires were wide­spread. Con­di­tions this year are more mod­er­ate but a dry pe­riod could make things very dan­ger­ous, very quickly.

There are two ironic events in play in Western Canada. Fort McMur­ray plays a lead­ing role in Al­berta’s oil sands in­dus­try — a con­tribut­ing fac­tor in cli­mate change. The dis­as­ter which struck Fort McMur­ray last May makes it im­per­a­tive to talk about the con­nec­tion be­tween hu­man-in­flu­enced cli­mate change and wild­fires.

The Fort McMur­ray in­ferno, which broke out May 1, 2016, was the worst and costli­est wild­fire in Cana­dian his­tory. It forced the evac­u­a­tion of ap­prox­i­mately 90,000 peo­ple, de­stroyed thou­sands of homes and build­ings and forced the shut­down of oil sands op­er­a­tions.

The fire spread across ap­prox­i­mately 590,000 hectares — an area larger than Prince Ed­ward Is­land — be­fore it was brought un­der con­trol. Man likely started the fire but the con­di­tions were di­rectly re­lated to cli­mate change. An un­usu­ally hot, dry air mass was in place over North­ern Al­berta in early May 2016, which brought record-set­ting tem­per­a­tures to Fort McMur­ray, hit­ting over 32 C for days, along with high winds and low hu­mid­ity. It was a recipe for dis­as­ter.

B.C. has de­clared a state of emer­gency this month as more than 200 wild­fires burn across the prov­ince. It’s ironic that B.C. is re­spon­si­ble for help­ing to worsen its own for­est fire threat.

The prov­ince was so suc­cess­ful at putting out wild­fires in re­cent decades that it has ac­tu­ally cre­ated a sit­u­a­tion where its forests are a tin­der­box. Fire­fight­ing ef­forts resulted in denser forests with a lot of dead ma­te­rial on the ground. Now, as the prov­ince swel­ters un­der in­creas­ingly hot, dry weather con­di­tions, wild­fires are much more se­vere. B.C. tried to pro­tect its forests from wild­fires but in­stead, cre­ated a sit­u­a­tion where they’re much more sus­cep­ti­ble and the fires are more dam­ag­ing.

Fire-friendly weather con­di­tions, once con­sid­ered rare, will soon be­come the av­er­age, based on cli­mate change pre­dic­tions.

East­ern prov­inces are tak­ing some ac­tion. For ex­am­ple, this week, New­found­land and Labrador un­veiled a new tool to help stop for­est fires be­fore they start, with an on­line for­est fire haz­ard map that pro­vides real-time in­for­ma­tion about the risk of wild­fires through­out the prov­ince. Hot, dry weather pat­terns are pro­jected to oc­cur longer and ear­lier in B.C, Al­berta and else­where in the coun­try. We must take steps to re­duce cli­mate change and man­age our forests more wisely and safely. If not, the Al­berta and B.C. dis­as­ters could hap­pen here.

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