Glenn McGillivray is managing director, Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction
When we look at the current fire situation playing out in Australia, where a prolonged period of exceptionally hot, dry weather has contributed to four straight months of major wildfires (called bushfires Down Under), a question is rekindled: Does the situation there portend a hotter, dryer more fiery future for places such as British Columbia and Alberta?
A decade or more ago, the question would come up quite regularly: With changing fire seasons being projected for places such as Australia and the U.S., will changes eventually migrate north and take root in Canada’s west?
The answer to the question now appears to be a fairly resounding “yes.”
According to Canada’s Changing Climate Report, a major assessment of current and future climate change impacts issued by Environment and Climate Change Canada last year, “Temperature has increased in all regions of Canada and in the surrounding oceans. Since 1948, when nation-wide records became available, Canada’s annual average temperature over land has warmed by a best estimate of 1.7°C, with higher temperature increases observed in the North, the Prairies, and northern British Columbia. Annual average temperature over northern Canada increased by 2.3°C since 1948. The greatest warming has occurred in winter.”
Though this sounds dire, Canada – indeed the world – is really only in the early stages of warming. But to put it in the simplest terms possible, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
As temperatures climb, there will be knock-on effects on precipitation and occurrences of drought, instances of prolonged heatwaves and negative impacts on forest health due to such things as insect infestation, to name but a few.
This being said, we will continue to see a considerable amount of natural variability in our weather, at least for the next decade or so. This will mean that the typical fluctuations that have been inherent in fire seasons in places like B.C. will largely continue for the near term. That is, there will still be relatively mild fire seasons in some years, interspersed with more severe seasons in others.
In time, however, the bad years will come more often. This is what climate change does – it loads the dice toward more and greater extremes. In the meantime, not so subtle hints of what the future will bring will show themselves here and there, as was the case with the 2017 and 2018 B.C. wildfire seasons.
The 2017 fire season in B.C. was, up to that time, the worst ever recorded in the province, with 1,353 fires reported (the 10 year annual average is 1,666) and a total area burned of 1,216,053 hectares (the 10 year annual average is 269,702 hectares, about 4.5 times lower than what was experienced in 2017).
But then came 2018. That year, 2,117 fires (451 more than the 10 year annual average) burned 1,354,284 hectares, an all-time record.
To have two extreme fire seasons run back to back is quite exceptional, but this is the kind of thing that climate change will bring. Fire seasons that may begin earlier in spring than in the past; bigger, hotter, faster-moving fires; larger areas burned; fire seasons that may extend later in the autumn; less natural variability with more climate forcing.
Some of these are only now just rearing their ugly heads in Canada’s west, but changes in the U.S. west have been evident for some time. There, the annual average number of large fires (i.e. greater than 1,000 acres or 405 hectares) has gone from around 140 in the 1980-1989 period to around 250 in the 2000-2012 period. Fire seasons have been starting roughly a week earlier per decade, from average five-month seasons in the early 1970s to seven-plus-month seasons today. Some fire experts have mused that places like California may even be moving to 12-month seasons.
A study published in the journal Earth’s Future in December, 2018, looked at the role climate change played in the 2017 wildfire season in British Columbia. The research found that the risk factors affecting the event, and the area burned itself, were made substantially more likely by climate change. “We show over 95 per cent of the probability for the observed maximum temperature anomalies is due to anthropogenic [human-caused] factors, that the event’s high fire weather/behaviour metrics were made 2-4 times more likely, and that anthropogenic climate change increased the area burned by a factor of 7-11.”
The fire situation in Canada (and in B.C. and Alberta in particular) is almost certain to only get worse. Research has found that the area burned in Canada has roughly doubled since the 1970s, and is projected to double again (and possibly treble) by the end of this century.
We know what is coming down the pipe – and it is not good. So the questions are: What are we doing about it? Where’s the plan? Or do we simply just sit and wait?
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