© 2024 Maine Public | Registered 501(c)(3) EIN: 22-3171529
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Scroll down to see all available streams.

An expert explains how climate change is worsening wildfires in North America

Flames from the Donnie Creek wildfire burn along a ridge top north of Fort St. John, British Columbia, Sunday, July 2, 2023.
Noah Berger
Associated Press
Flames from the Donnie Creek wildfire burn along a ridge top north of Fort St. John, British Columbia, Sunday, July 2, 2023.

Michael Flannigan is an expert on forest fires and Canada's efforts to deal with them. A one-time meteorologist, Flanagan worked with the Canadian Forest Service. He currently studies wildland fires at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia.

He spoke with Maine Public's Irwin Gratz about the growing danger of wildfires in Canada and the U.S. from human-caused climate change.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Gratz: First of all, an update, can you tell us where some of the worst fires are now burning in Canada?

Flannigan: Right now the most active areas are Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest territories -- in our West, and they're burning actively and probably will continue to burn for the next six, eight, 12 weeks. It's hot and dry.

Michael Flannigan, a wildfire expert at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.
Thompson Rivers University
Michael Flannigan, a wildfire expert at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.

Wildfires are not unusual in Canada, as is the case in the American West. But what is setting this fire season apart?

So first off, it's a record-breaking year. We're kind of in uncharted territory. The amount of area burned is larger than the state of Maine. And that's much larger than our previous record, which was from 1989.

It started off with a bang in the West. There was record-breaking heat in the spring. And where you get warm temperatures, you often see fire because our fire seasons are longer, warmer weather brings more lightning, and warmer weather generally dries out the fuels very effectively. That's important for fire. So it started in the West. And then it came to the East, with Nova Scotia catching fire. And then those large fires in Quebec.

And I know you folks in Maine have been seeing some of that smoke. Some of these fires are huge, bigger than Prince Edward Island, and they're going to burn through the summer, into the fall, maybe even through winter, 'cause they can smolder underground in deeper layers of organic material. Peat, for example.

What kind of firefighting effort has Canada been able to mount?

So fire management's the responsibility of the landowners. So we have 10 provinces in Canada. Two of the three territories fight fire, and also a federal agency called Parks Canada fights fire. So they all have some common features, but they all do things a little bit differently. But right now we have over 550 fires under control.

But some of these are really in far northern remote areas. And they're basically monitored, they're allowed to burn because our boreal forests, the forest survives and thrives in the stream of semi-regular stand-replacing, stand-renewing, high-intensity fire. And these are such high-intensity that they're difficult-to-impossible to extinguish through direct attack. It's just Mother Nature doing her thing. So when and where possible, many fire management agencies allow Mother Nature to do her thing.

Farther south, where people are, well, they're fought vigorously, just like in the United States. You hit 'em hard, you hit 'em fast. If the fire is small, it's easy to put out. Once the fire gets bigger than a football field, and it's hot, dry and windy, and the fields are dry, you now have a real problem. So initial attacks are critical for those unwanted fires.

Firefighters from United States have helped out a great deal because your fire season has been relatively quiet, it's starting to pick up now with the heat out west. But you've sent a lot of resources to Canada. And we're very grateful that just about 12 countries have been sending resources. And if you had an active fire season, we wouldn't have access to some of your crews.

The latest report from scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the conditions that make it more likely for fires to take hold is a growing problem in many parts of the world. And as a result, we're going to see this more and more frequently. Is that the case, you think, in Canada?

Yeah, our area of burn in Canada has doubled since the 1970s. And my colleagues and I attribute this largely -- not solely -- to human-caused climate change. It's even more dramatic in western United States where area of burn has quadrupled.

These greenhouse gases are building up and creating this warming. And as I mentioned, the warmer it is, the longer our fire seasons are, especially for places like Canada, where historically our fire season has been short and now they're getting longer. More lightning. Lightning burns most of our area of burn, 80-90% of the area burned. Our human-caused fires are going down, which is great. But lightning has more than compensated for it.

And warmer temperatures lead to drier fuels, unless we get more rain. And most of the models suggest we're not going to get more rain to compensate for the dry. The drier the fuels, the easier for fires to start. Easier for fire to spread. And it means more fuels available to burn, which leads to these high-intensity fires that are difficult-to-impossible to extinguish.

I've also read that about 25,000 Indigenous people have had to be evacuated because of fire. Is this taking a bigger toll on First Nations lands and wildlife in Canada?

Absolutely. You know, many of these communities are remote communities, and many of them are First Nations or Indigenous communities. So they are much more impacted by increased fire activity than the rest of the population.

Is there anything that, in particular, Canada should be doing differently to deal with the threat from these wildfires?

We can't do much about hot, dry, windy weather until we do something about human-caused climate change. We can't do anything about lightning.

But we can do something about human-caused fires. They're all preventable. In Canada, we have about 3,000 a year. And that pales in comparison to the United States where it's probably closer to 60,000 human-caused fires a year.

But that number can be reduced and things like fire bans, forest closures are very effective. Very unpopular because it means no industrial activity, no recreational activity, but very effective at stopping human-caused fires.