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.
“FUNDAMENTALLY WHAT WE NEED TO DO IS REDUCE GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS.” Francis Zwiers, study co-author
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