Cli­mate change played ma­jor role in record fires

Study finds B.C. wild­fires were 11 times larger be­cause of cli­mate change


A wild­fire burns on a moun­tain in the dis­tance east of Cache Creek be­hind a house in Bos­ton Flats, B.C., in the early morn­ing hours of July 10, 2017. Cli­mate change, caused by the green­house gas emis­sions that spew from cars, in­dus­try, and de­for­esta­tion, played a ma­jor role in the dev­as­tat­ing wild­fires that tore through Bri­tish Co­lum­bia in 2017, a new study from re­searchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Vic­to­ria and En­vi­ron­ment Canada has found.

The re­search, pub­lished in the jour­nal Earth’s Fu­ture, de­ter­mined that hu­man-caused cli­mate change made it 20 times more likely the south­ern Cordillera re­gion of B.C. would ex­pe­ri­ence ex­treme high tem­per­a­tures, mak­ing it eas­ier for wild­fires to start and spread.

At the same time, the au­thors found the area burned by the 2017 wild­fires was seven to 11 times larger than they would have ex­pected it to be if not for cli­mate change.

“Fun­da­men­tally what we need to do is re­duce green­house gas emis­sions,” said Fran­cis Zwiers, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Pa­cific Cli­mate Im­pacts Con­sor­tium at the Uni­ver­sity of Vic­to­ria and one of the study’s co-au­thors.

“We need to wres­tle them to very close to zero if we’re go­ing to sta­bi­lize the cli­mate sys­tem.”

The 2017 wild­fires set records in B.C., burn­ing an as­ton­ish­ing 1.2 mil­lion hectares — an area that’s al­most the size of Con­necti­cut, ac­cord­ing to the pa­per. Some 65,000 peo­ple were dis­placed over the course of the sea­son, and by the end, some had no home to re­turn to.

In its sea­son sum­mary, the prov­ince wrote: “the sum­mer of 2017 will be re­mem­bered as one of the worst wild­fire sea­sons in Bri­tish Co­lum­bia’s his­tory.”

The record wasn’t held for long. By the end of the 2018 fire sea­son, it had been bro­ken again. This time, more than 1.35 mil­lion hectares burned.

“As the cli­mate con­tin­ues to warm, we can ex­pect that costly ex­treme wild­fire sea­sons — like 2017, in BC — will be­come more likely in the fu­ture,” said Me­gan Kirch­meier-young, the pa­per’s lead au­thor, in a state­ment.

To reach their con­clu­sions, the au­thors used cli­mate mod­els to com­pare the decade be­tween 2011 and 2020 to the decade be­tween 1961 and 1970. The pa­per does not con­sider the im­pact of pests such as the pine bee­tle or for­est man­age­ment prac­tices.

Phil Austin, a pro­fes­sor in the Uni­ver­sity of Bri­tish Co­lum­bia’s Depart­ment of Earth, Ocean and At­mo­spheric Sciences, said the study is “def­i­nitely as solid as a peer­re­viewed sci­en­tific ar­ti­cle could be.”

Now, he’d like to see con­certed ef­fort to re­duce the green­house gas emis­sions re­spon­si­ble for driv­ing cli­mate change and ex­treme events like this.

“If aliens were do­ing this to us, we’d be meet­ing around the clock to counter this, so why aren’t we do­ing that?” he said.

De­spite the height­ened threat of in­tense wild­fires, Austin said Bri­tish Columbians are liv­ing in the right part of the world for fu­ture cli­mate change.


More on this is­sue at thes­­cou­ver


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