Study finds climate change increased risk of Canadian wildfires

Report was done by scientists from Canada, the UK, and Netherlands
Though fires in Quebec and Nova Scotia have calmed down, major fires are happening in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories. (ID 134406894 © Stan Jones | )

As we reach the last week of August, Canada has set a record. It is one it would rather not set.

The 2023 wildfire season is the largest and most devastating in Canadian history. The total area of forest burned is over twice as large as the past record—larger than the country of Greece—and it is still burning.

Currently, much of British Columbia and the Northwest Territories are under emergency alert. Almost all of the 30,000 residents of Yellowknife, the NWT capital, have been evacuated. Overall, about 1 in every 200 Canadians has been forced to flee their home at some time this year due to wildfires.

And last week, firefighters in B.C. captured footage of an extremely rare fire tornado, or fire whirl.

These are extreme weather events, and they are happening across the country. But they are not unexpected ones.

That is the finding of a new study released by an international team of 17 scientists from Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. In their new report, they say that the conditions created by a changing climate have made such fires twice as likely.

Looked at Quebec

To conduct their study, the researchers looked at data from the wildfires in Quebec. Though a few fires are still burning there, the worst of these fires happened between May and July.

They saw how hotter, drier weather created conditions where trees were primed (or left ready) for easier—as well as hotter, taller—burning. Meanwhile, stronger winds helped these fires spread quickly.

And the combination of tall, super hot and rapidly spreading flames are what has made these fires so incredibly hard to control. Despite heroic efforts and hundreds of foreign teams offering assistance, the firefighters have been overwhelmed.

Increased fire risk

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The town of Enterprise, Northwest Territories was hit by wildfires this month, destroying many buildings. (Getty Embed)

These weather conditions propelling these fires—hotter, drier, windier—are in keeping with what climate change has bought to the country. To be clear, these conditions alone do not start wildfires. But what they do do is increase fire risk, or likelihood of intense fires happening.

This risk is "getting more severe as climate change gets worse," according Clair Barnes. She is a climate scientist at Imperial College, London and is the study's lead author. She says that the conditions "will continue to [get worse] until we stop emitting fossil fuels."

Increased intensity

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A Canadian Air Force plane being used to help evacuate people from Yellowknife. (Getty Embed)

Mike Flannigan, a fire scientist at B.C.'s Thompson Rivers University, is another scientist who worked on the study. He says that he is most concerned about how strong some of the recent fires are.

"The increase in intensity, that's what worries me the most," he told NPR. "Having that increase in intensity means we're seeing more fires we cannot manage with direct attack."

Even though the most intense wildfires are a small percentage of the total fires burning, Flannigan says that these handful of fires are the ones that have done almost all of the major damage to habitat and property.

An unnatural natural event

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Thick smoke has been covering many parts of British Columbia for weeks. (Getty Embed)

The trickiest part of analyzing wildfires is that they are a part of the natural life cycle of forests.

By looking at tree rings, scientists have been able to note moments hundreds of years in the past where fires burned that were as intense as what we are seeing now. Maybe even more intense.

But according to the study, we could find ourselves pushing those historic limits once again. Martin Girardin from the Canadian Forest Service also added to the study. He noted that "with climate change, we should attain or exceed those levels" of past fires.

Time to adjust

It all is hitting home in the buildings of provincial and national governments in Canada.

Experts like Monica Auer of the Forum for Research and Policy in Communications are calling on Ottawa to improve how we alert the public to wildfires. And many activists and politicians are demanding the federal government sets up a national firefighter force to address wildfires. (Right now, all wildfire teams are run by the provinces.)

Still others are asking for Canada to make greater use of technology, like drones, to fight fires. Drones are already used to map fires, but experts like Schuyler Hinman of the University of Calgary say that "groups of four or up to 30 drones" could be used to actually fight the fires.

One piece of tech that is going ahead is a new national wildfire monitoring satellite. Called WildFireSat, it is scheduled to launch in 2029.

Until then, the bravery of firefighters is literally saving lives and property coast to coast. West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund even noted during a press conference this week that "often [people have] talked back to us through your doorbell cams and told us that we're doing a good job. That's new for us, but we appreciate that."

Watch a video about WildFireSat below.

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