Photo credit: George Frey / Stringer Collection: Getty Images News

The province of British Columbia, in Western Canada, is experiencing its worst wildfire season ever on record, with almost 900,000 hectares burned since April (that’s an area roughly the size of Puerto Rico charred to bits). To blame are a combination of factors, including decades of fire suppression, degrading forest health conditions, and, of course, climate change. “It’s been too hot and too dry for too long,” said David Quinn, a wildlife biologist based in Kimberley, B.C. “And the trend seems to be that we’ll have more rain events in the winter [which diminishes the spring snowpack] and hotter, dryer summers, the combination of which leads to fire seasons like this one.”

It’s getting hot in here

Unlike the post-truth Trump administration, the Canadian government isn’t in denial about climate change, and doesn’t shy away from using science to explain their situation: “Climate change during the 21st century is expected to result in more frequent fires in many boreal forests, with severe environmental and economic consequences... this could potentially result in a doubling of the amount of area burned by the end of this century, compared with amounts burned in recent decades,” states the B.C. government’s website, summing up the precarious situation succinctly. And there’s little question that things in B.C. are heating up: since 1900, average temperatures in the region have already increased 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit, and are expected to grow another 2.3 – 4.9 degrees by 2050 (these trends extend beyond B.C.; the Earth as a whole has experienced 15 of the 16 hottest years ever recorded since 2000).

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As Quinn points out, climate change isn’t just making the region hotter, it’s also anticipated to generate wetter winters and dryer summers. The changes in rainfall patterns would likely reduce the areas snowpack, which feeds rivers and waterways deep into the hot summer months. The result would be dry periods becoming even dryer, turning the forest into a box of tinder.

Daniel Perrakis, fire research scientist for the Canadian Forest Service, has been studying forest fires for the better part of a decade, first as a forest ecologist for Parks Canada, then as a fire science officer with the BC Wildfire Service. Dr. Perrakis asserts that it’s not just increasing temperatures that are concerning, but also the coming variability; “If we get a 10 or 20 percent increase in hot and dry days throughout a season… that’s no big deal,” he explained. “But if we get 10 wet years, followed by one extremely dry year, then that’s really hard to handle.”

“By any measure the current year is a historic fire year, and this is with the most modern fire suppression, fire prevention, fire control, infrastructure and equipment that we’ve ever had,” Dr. Perrakis went on. “But climate is just one of the factors at play: there have also been changes to the forest health, the mountain pine beetle, and added fuel from putting out fires… all of which contribute to fire conditions.”

Where the fire gets its fuel 

The Mountain Pine Beetle is a native species of beetle that infests pine trees; after the beetle kills these trees, the trees die and the needles turn red,” explained Dr. Perrakis. “The moisture in the needles dry up and… eventually what we’re left with are grey dead trees.” Across Canada, there are huge expanses of red and grey pine trees, evidence of past and present beetle outbreaks. Needless to say, areas with dead, dry needles and trees increase the risk of forest fires.

Mostly dead lodgepole pine trees, a result of the mountain pine beetle epidemic in Routt National Forest near the Wyoming/Colorado state line, 2013. Photo credit: AP/U.S. Forest Service, Joe Riss.

Beetle outbreaks are natural events that happen every few decades in B.C. (and across huge portions of the U.S.), and they’re naturally controlled by winter weather; a cold snap, early in the winter, will kill off beetle eggs that are nested in the bark of pine trees, ending a beetle epidemic. But with global warming, these cold snaps have become fewer and far between; minimum average winter nighttime temperatures in B.C. have already increased by 5.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900. Without a proper cold snap for a few years, a beetle outbreak could be devastating; that’s what happened in the late 1990’s, when an outbreak wasn’t stopped for 10 years, and ravaged an unimaginably large portion of B.C.’s forests. “It affected something like 18 million hectares of B.C.,” explained Dr. Perrakis, “and that’s a huge amount, considering the area of the province is a bit over 90 million hectares... that’s about 20%.”

Red, dry pine needles from a tree ravaged by pine beetles, Keystone, Colorado, 2008. Photo credit: AP/David Zalubowski

Beetle infested woods, with dry, dead trees, increase the risk of wildfire. Making matters even more complicated, fighting the subsequent forest fires might actually help spread beetle infestations; stopping fires allows pine forests to reach an over-mature age, which makes them better hosts for beetles, increasing the rate of attacks.

Putting forest fires into context

Forest fires are a natural part of forest ecosystems, and it’s really only been in the past 100 or so years that people have been fighting fires in North America. In fact, Native Americans (First Nations in Canada) routinely set fires to clear the land, renew growth and create natural fireguards. “Fires in some of our ecosystems, especially in some of our dryer areas, are sort of like the room cleaners: they come through, burn up the grass, the shrubs and the small trees, they keep it nice and open in the understory,” explained Quinn. “Imagine what would happen if you didn’t clean your room for 100 years... we have a century of forests ingrowth… a whole bunch of dead dry fuel that’s building up and building up and building up… there’s no way that we can control a fire when it gets like that.”

Water is released from a helicopter hovering over a wildfire near near Fort McMurray, Alberta in 2016. Photo Credit: AP/Rachel La Corte

Quinn explains that suppressing wildfires has altered huge portions of the B.C. landscape, making the region more flammable. “There were antelope here when the first Europeans showed up; huge expenses of B.C. were just open grassland, but now it’s all 80-90-year-old, really thick Douglass fir weeds,” explained Quinn. “When a fire gets into that it’s basically unstoppable… this is the same everywhere, around so many communities in B.C.… we’ve been suppressing the fires for 100 years or so, and now we’ve got a lot of fuel we need to deal with.”

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The Catch 22 is that while a few good fires would clear out much of the flammable undergrowth, communities are now living in and around many of these forested areas; if the fires were left to their own devices, they could have devastating consequences.

Giving fires the cold shoulder

Quinn believes that an important first step in combating wildfires is for people living in fire risk regions to take the necessary precautions, like building homes with non-combustible siding and metal roofs instead of wood shingles, and not having trees within 100 meters of their home. He points out that a fair amount of research indicates that properly built and maintained homes have a much better chance of withstanding wildfires. “It’s a little bit akin to people building on a flood plain and then being surprised when their house floods,” explained Quinn. “We’ve built all these houses and lovely developments in these beautiful forested areas and any forester will tell you, especially in our dryer ecosystems, forest fires have always been part of the ecology.”

Both Quinn and Dr. Perrakis point out that a lot of good could be done with more money going to protecting the urban-wilderness interface, tightening up building codes and clearing out the understory near B.C. communities. Researchers across the U.S. are reaching similar conclusions, asserting that putting out wildfires might be a mistake and that money might better spent in community fire-safety infrastructure projects.

Smokey skies outside a gas station in the Cariboo region of B.C., August 2017. Photo credit: Lucas Isakowitz

For now, the B.C. region is still fighting its largest fire season to date; thousands have been evacuated from their homes, almost $250 million has been spent trying to stop the great burn, and the resulting smoke has blanketed huge parts of Western Canada (and parts of Washington) in a hazy smog. 

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“There are real people suffering and communities at risk, but people should also remember the benefits of wildfires,” said Quinn. “Fire is a natural part of our ecosystem, when fires go through, they create more of a mosaic of habitats, rather than acres and acres and acres of the same forest, and that mix of forest types is really good for wildlife diversity and abundance… we see them as being the ultimate in destruction, but there are good aspects to them as well.”