The scenes are apocalyptic. Smoke-darkened skies, orange-red flames, billowing smoke, raging infernos. In B.C., nearly 13,000 square kilometres of land has burned, making 2018 the worst year on record. In California, one fire alone has devoured more than 162,000 hectares. All this, we are told, is the consequence of global warming – the penalty for failing to control our fatal addiction to fossil fuels. What we are witnessing is the wrath of Mother Earth, in all her fury. This is the new normal.
The rhetoric matches the images. “Climate change is here, and the world is burning,” one headline pronounced. In a tweet, Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, proclaimed that the forest fire situation ”just demonstrates that climate change is having a real impact on Canadians.” In California, Governor Jerry Brown declared that climate change has made the wildfire situation “part of our ordinary experience.”
But some people think the role of global warming is greatly overstated. “If you really dig down you find a lot of these links to climate change are weak,” Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, told me. In fact, the wildfires are mainly due to decades of bad forestry practices – especially the suppression of burning over decades that created denser forests with a lot of debris on the ground. This has created a tremendous buildup of flammable material that normally would have burned off periodically.
As three forest experts wrote in this newspaper last year, “Public aversion to all wildfire has been reinforced by a very successful policy of suppressing nearly all wildfires in recent decades.” That suppression increases forest densities and fuel loads, making fires far more severe than they would be if nature had been allowed to take its course.
In fact, in the West a world without fires is unnatural. “Wildfires are an essential part of the ecology of our region,” Mr. Mass writes on his blog. ”When European settlers reached the region in the 1800s they found an area that was frequently smoky in summer, with major fires. And the reason that current inhabitants of the region think smoke is an outlier is because of nearly a century of fire suppression.” The number of acres burned a century ago, he says, dwarfs what we’re seeing today. The same is true in B.C., where the accumulation of forest fuels on Crown land that is essentially unmanaged has made the landscape extremely combustible. But now, the bill for our poor forest management has come due. As David Martell, forestry professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, told Global TV, the “[F]irst thing we need to do is reduce the flammability of our landscapes.”
Here’s another reason why we’re seeing so many wildfires: Us. In B.C., about 40 per cent of the wildfires that have burned in the past decade were caused by humans, according to the BC Wildfire Service. In California it’s as high as 95 per cent. The causes range from carelessness with campfires and cigarettes, to tire rims scraping on asphalt, to arson. More human settlement means more fires and a longer fire season. It also means more fires that endanger people and their homes. As The Globe’s contributors wrote last year, “The expanding wildland-urban interface poses an enormously challenging fire-management problem.” In other words, if you build near a hazardous fuel depot, you’re going to get burned.
Here’s another thing that alarmists gets wrong. Globally, total wildfire activity has not increased. In fact, according to one research study, global burned area has dropped by 25 per cent over the past 18 years. Another study concluded, “[T]here is increasing evidence that there is less fire in the global landscape today than centuries ago.” One reason: People have turned a lot of forest into farmland.
Cliff Mass says global warming may well play a bit part in this summer’s wildfires. But he also thinks that blaming climate change for wildfires is a handy way of sloughing off the problem instead of doing something about it. The trouble is that proper forest management is extremely expensive. No one has the budget, and no one wants to pay the price to do it right. And everybody wants to pass the buck. A report commissioned by the B.C. government after last year’s disastrous summer gives a hint of the challenge. It says treating the province’s moderate- to high-risk areas would cost $6.7-billion – and that’s after overcoming the resistance of local residents to the whole idea of prescribed burning.
You know where that report will end up – on the shelf, with all the others. The fires will keep on raging, and the politicians will keep wringing their hands and commissioning more reports. And instead of facing what we’ve got to do, we’ll just blame global warming and watch the province burn.