Inhaling smoke from a wildfire can be equal to smoking a couple of packs of cigarettes a day depending on its thickness, says a researcher studying wildfires in Western Canada. A wildfire burns on a logging road approximately 20 km southwest of Fort St. James, B.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Experts say climate change is driving up the risk of wildfires in Canada

Canada, like Australia and California among others, is also seeing an increase in the number of fires burning

Canadian wildfire experts say Canada is very vulnerable to the kind of devastating wildfires ravaging Australia right now.

More than 12.5 million hectares of bushland have burned in Australia since October and prime forest-fire season is just now getting underway.

Multiple heat waves and a lengthy and widespread drought left much of the country, including some of its most populated regions, at higher risk for fire than ever before.

To date the fires have killed 25 people and an estimated 500 million animals, and destroyed almost 1,900 homes. More than 100,000 people have been forced to evacuate to escape the flames.

“What’s happening in Australia now is extraordinary,” said Ed Struzik, a fellow at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University.

And he says, Canada is not immune to seeing the same thing.

“We’re as vulnerable as any country in the world,” he said.

Canada is home to about 30 per cent of the world’s total forests, and 10 per cent of what is known as forest cover, which refers to a specific density of trees.

According to the National Forestry Database, Canada’s worst year for forest fires burned about seven million hectares in 1995, while the average yearly amount burned is about 2.3 million hectares.

The Fort McMurray, Alta., fire in 2016, burned 590,000 hectares, destroyed 2,400 homes and buildings and forced the entire city of more than 80,000 people to evacuate.

British Columbia declared a state of emergency in both 2017 and 2018, when they had two record setting years for fires. In 2017, 1.22 million hectares burned in B.C. and in 2018, 1.35 million hectares burned.

Struzik says fire risk is going up in Canada because of climate change, human activity and a glut of fuel for fires in forests ravaged by pests like the mountain pine beetle.

“We’re seeing things that we just haven’t really seen before,” he said. ”So the signals are there. Very strong signals that we’re going to see things get a lot worse before they get better.”

University of Alberta wildland fire professor Mike Flannigan says “climate change’s fingerprints are all over these Australian fires” and play the same role in raising the risk in Canada.

“The warmer it is the longer the fire season,” said Flannigan. “The warmer it is the more lightning you see.”

He said for every degree of warming, the number of lightning strikes goes up by about 12 per cent. Lightning usually causes more than half of the wildfires in Canada.

He also said warmer temperatures dry out trees and other fuels for the fire. Unless there is an associated increase in rainfall, there is more fuel available to burn, allowing fires to start easily and spread more rapidly. They are also more intense fires, making them harder, or even impossible, to extinguish.

VIDEO: How to help the animals affected by Australia’s wildfires

“It’s a warmer world and part of a warmer world is more fire,” he said.

Canada, like Australia and California among others, is also seeing an increase in the number of fires burning closer to where people live and in places where they didn’t usually burn before. That is partly because communities are growing out into areas that used to be very unpopulated, but also because people are playing and enjoying the natural environments in places they did not visit much in earlier times.

Humans cause between one-third and one-half of the fires in Canada each year, said Struzik.

Both Struzik and Flannigan say Canada needs to invest in more research to work on fire prediction, prevention and monitoring in particular. Struzik said some of the tools being used now were developed 70 years ago.

Flannigan said fire research budgets have been cut to the bone over the last 20 years or so, but he said he thinks recent investments are now turning that ship around.

Better emergency-management plans and systems at the community level are also desperately needed, say Struzik and Flannigan. The 2019 federal budget set aside $151 million over five years to improve emergency management and some of that money is going to research, said Flannigan.

Individuals who live in cities far from canopied forests are more likely to be affected by smoke and should invest in air purifiers, said Flannigan. Those who live near bigger forests should reduce the risk by removing fuel like shrubbery and mulch around their homes, and not use wood shingles. They also need an evacuation plan.

Remote communities that have limited ways in or out should have fire-safe shelters built, they say.

“Bottom line for Canadians is climate change is here,” said Flannigan. ”We’re going to see a lot more. Not every year, but on average we’re going to see a lot more fire, a lot more smoke. We have to learn to live with fire.”

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Kiakho Lake wildfire being held, Stirton Rd wildfire under control

Latest update on two local wildfires in the Kimberley and Cranbrook area

Cranbrook Bucks set to open rookie camp at the end of August

Junior hockey will feature in Cranbrook at the end of the month,… Continue reading

Officials raise alarm over water, environmental ‘crisis’ in Baynes Lake area

Local officials are sounding the alarm over a water and environmental crisis… Continue reading

The Murdochs: Fast Track to Hockey Stardom

Every Canadian hockey story, like that of the Murdochs of Cranbrook, seems to start in the backyard

Cranbrook RCMP looking for stolen red pickup truck

The vehicle is a red 1998 Chevy S10 pickup

Hiroo Onoda’s Thirty-Year War

Some Japanese soldiers, not knowing the war was over, did not surrender until 1972

Canucks ride momentum into NHL playoff series against defending Stanley Cup champs

PREVIEW: Vancouver opens against St. Louis on Wednesday

Man, 54, charged in connection with fatal attack of Red Deer doctor

Doctor was killed in his walk-in clinic on Monday

One dead as fish boat sinks off southern Vancouver Island

Shawnigan Lake-registered Arctic Fox II went down off Cape Flattery, west of Victoria

Landlord takes front door, windows after single B.C. mom late with rent

Maple Ridge mom gets help from community generosity and government

42 more people test positive for COVID-19 in B.C.

The province has recorded no new deaths in recent days

Joe Biden selects California Sen. Kamala Harris as running mate

Harris and Biden plan to deliver remarks Wednesday in Wilmington

Lawsuit launched after Florida child handcuffed, booked and briefly jailed

Suit alleges “deliberate indifference” to what should have been handled as a behavioural issue

Most Read