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Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.The Globe and Mail

In the immediate aftermath of the Fort McMurray fire, it was considered to be in bad taste to associate the event with climate change. Worse was to suggest that karma had come back to bite the oil sands city in the behind.

Karma had nothing to do with the blaze, of course. And scientists will tell you it's exceedingly difficult to link the man-made warming of the Earth to a single inferno such as this one. But whether we like it or not, the events of last week are now connected to an undeniable phenomenon: Record temperatures are being associated with record-setting fires that are wiping out vast tracts of important timberlands around the world.

And the boreal forest that burst into flames and forced the evacuation of nearly 90,000 people from Fort McMurray while incinerating entire neighbourhoods is now among them.

What this does, in the process, is put the fire at the intersection of what could be a loud and fractious debate. On one side are those who will say the blaze has put a province already down on its economic luck in an even more perilous position; ergo, the pipeline it is battling desperately to get now becomes more important than ever.

On the other, people decrying that logic: Why would we help facilitate a project that is only going to ensure greater carbon-dioxide emissions are belched into the atmosphere, thereby helping overheat the planet even more and further contribute to the mega-fire spectacle the planet is now witnessing?

It is a hellish, nearly intractable quandary but one which the political and business leadership in this country is going to need to grapple with.

The economic plight Alberta is experiencing as a result of the price plunge in oil has been well documented. That would include a near apocalyptic drop-off in resource revenue, mass layoffs and historic levels of new debt. Given less attention, arguably, have been hard questions raised over the growing immolation of our forests.

The fact that we might have a problem in this regard no longer seems to be in dispute. Forest fire season is now two and a half months longer in the western United States than it was 30 years ago, according to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

The same organization reports there has been a fourfold increase in the number of large forest fires in the American West in recent years. Across the globe it has increased 19 per cent, according to a study published in Nature Communications last year. A report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released in 2015 indicated these mega-fires "could increase as much as six times by mid-century as a result of man-made global warming," reported USA Today. Snow packs are at their lowest levels in the northern hemisphere in 50 years, according to David Robinson, a climatologist at Rutgers University in the United States.

Mike Flannigan, a professor at the University of Alberta and a renowned expert on the impact a changing climate is having on forest fires, says fluctuations in the environment have affected weather systems that produce rain and consequently some regions of the world are not seeing precipitation with the same frequency they once did.

And on it goes. There are a couple of immediate challenges all this poses.

One is the fact that our woods absorb an important amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. When these forests are destroyed, those emissions are released. And when these conflagrations occur with the type of frequency and on the kind of scale we are now witnessing, it exacerbates an increasingly desperate situation.

The other test we must now address is the impact these fires are going to have on towns and cities around the world. Fort McMurray was not an isolated event. And the limitations of a community carved out of a boreal forest were exposed, primarily among them a lack of escape routes. We all saw the videos of the terrifying flight out of the city that many of the evacuees had to make while a 30-metre-tall wall of flames closed in on them.

The question isn't if another Fort McMurray can happen in Canada, it's when. As the town begins its slow recovery, the debate about the conditions that set the stage for such a tragedy to occur is only beginning to heat up.

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