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Forest fires and climate change

Jill Colton, staff writer

May 26, 2011 — After a vicious round of wildfires incinerated the town of Slave Lake, Alberta, there's fear that fires of this magnitude or worse could happen again in the boreal forest. The Weather Network takes an in-depth look at the relationship between forest fires and climate change.

Devastating smoke plume from a forest fire in Alberta.
Devastating smoke plume from a forest fire in Alberta.

The boreal forest covers about one third of Canada and stretches across seven provinces. But according to academics, this vast area of land is quickly becoming a breeding ground for wildfires.

What is being dubbed as the disaster of a generation by Alberta's Premier -- the Slave Lake fire outbreak may not be a one-off catastrophe. Research suggests that's it's not a matter of if, but when.

“It's going to happen again, it's just a matter of time. The risk is increasing in time, mainly due to climate change,” warns Dr. Mike Flannigan, Professor with the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta and Canadian Forest Service researcher.

There are a lot of fires across the landscape -- Dr. Flannigan says there's an average of 9,000 fires a year across Canada and they burn approximately 2 million hectares -- this number is steadily increasing.

Fires in the 1960's and 1970's charred about 1 million hectares of land in each year. “So it's already doubled in the last 40 years...and we've published work that shows this is directly due to human caused climate change,” says Dr. Flannigan.

Collective research indicates that as time goes on, the chance of flares increases. “What we see for the future are longer fire seasons, more fire starts and more area burned.”

Even worse, “some of the work suggests a five fold increase in places like BC, Yukon and Alaska.”

This year alone, Alberta has already seen over 300,000 hectares burned. In comparison, The Canadian Forest Fire Centre says a ten year average sees around 10,000 hectares burned by this time of year in the province.

The remains of the wildfire that roared through Slave Lake, Alberta.
The remains of the wildfire that roared through Slave Lake, Alberta.

Dr. Flannigan says that temperature is a key factor when it comes to fire ignition. And the reason is threefold.

Firstly, warm weather contributes to a prolonged fire season. Secondly, warmer weather often leads to more lightning storms. And finally, there likely won't be enough rainfall to compensate for the increased warmth, which ultimately leads to drier ground.

Lightning can be a dangerous ignitor when it comes to wildfires. On average, around 35 per cent of outbreaks are started because of lightning storms. Even worse, Dr. Flannigan says, “the lightning fires are responsible for 85 per cent of area burned.”

Shaylea Ostapowich, Manager of Lightning Content at The Weather Network says accessibility is one reason why lightning fires are more likely to spread faster.

“They're usually in remote locations hard to reach by forest fire fighters. So a lot of the time those fires are not contained and are allowed to burn unless they approach a community whereas fires started by human activity are generally closer to communities, making access easier,” says Ostapowich

Additionally, Dr. Flannigan says lightning fires will sometimes ignite in clusters which can overwhelm a fire management agency.

Fighting fires is a costly financial endeavour. Every year, Canada spends roughly $800-million on fire management.

The expensive struggle is growing with each passing year. Not to mention the sheer size and devastation as a result of some of these epic infernos. “How we deal with fire in the future is going to have to change from what we've been doing in the past.”

Ultimately, slowing climate change is the best long-term solution to the ongoing boreal wildfire situation, Dr. Flannigan says.

“There are a number of approaches to deal with fire in the future.”

Fire Smart is one program that provides fire protection guidelines for homeowners and communities. Fire guards are also a viable option for communities, concludes Dr. Flannigan.

With files from The Globe and Mail

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