Here are some places that have experienced unprecedented wildfires in the last half-decade or so: Western Canada including, currently, the Okanagan. Ontario, Quebec and, almost continuously, the Western United States. Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, China and Russia.
European countries that have been hit include Portugal, France, Italy and, right now, Greece, where dozens have died and heat levels have been high enough to melt cars. Particularly worrying at the moment are wildfires in Sweden, which has been dealing with temperatures of more than 30 C above the Arctic Circle.
These are the places that Lori Daniels, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, listed off the top of her head. She’s one of three Canadian forest fire experts I got in touch with this week, to discuss whether my sense that the whole world was on fire was paranoia or reality.
All of them – Dr. Daniels, Mike Flannigan of the University of Alberta and Christian Messier of the Université du Québec à Montréal – said that recent years have shown an increase in fires in this country and worldwide. They all believed climate change was a contributing factor, and they all had suggestions for solutions, if governments and the rest of us can find the will.
Wildfires aren’t a problem in and of themselves. “Wildfires are normal, it’s the way the ecosystem functions,” Dr. Daniels said: the waxy cones of some pine trees require heat to release seeds. What is scary is how big and fast they have become, in part because the hot, dry, windy periods that nurture them are growing longer.
These new developments are almost certainly because of climate change: Dr. Daniels pointed to “unusual” activity that’s never been “documented" before recorded temperatures began to rise, while Mr. Messier wrote in an e-mail that “all simulation models predict that fire will increase due to climate change.”
Mr. Flannigan, who has been researching the subject for 30 years, is more blunt. “I and others attribute this to, and I can’t be any more clear than this, to human-caused climate change,” he said. Some reasons are easy to understand: As temperatures increase, dry seasons that produce ignitable materials become longer, and the chance of lightning increases too.
A more complicated climate-related factor at play is the jet stream, defined in a New Scientist article Mr. Flannigan recommends as “a fast-flowing river of air snaking continually round the northern hemisphere."
The jet stream “gets its energy from the temperature difference between Arctic areas and equatorial areas,” Mr. Flannigan says. When that difference shrinks, a weak jet stream makes weather stagnant, leading to floods in rainy areas and droughts in hot ones. This year has seen temperature records broken everywhere from Siberia to Algeria.
The result, according to Mr. Flannigan, is that “our world will have more fire now.”
The fire community, as they call themselves, caution against rushing to put them out: Dr. Daniels said wildfire intensity has increased in Canada as a result of the build-up of dry brush over the past 150 years, as the colonial instinct to suppress fire overtook Indigenous expertise in living with it.
In the past, low fires circulated through forests, eating brush while sparing older trees with stronger bark, and creating a patchwork of burned areas which worked as buffers in following years. Now, abundant kindling leads to more treetop fires with massive flames that destroy both old and young foliage, which are often too intense for firefighting efforts at all.
“We sometimes mistakenly think … the BC Wildfire Service is going to come and they will save the day,” she said. “But there are some fires where we’re just not able to stop them. We need to be better prepared. We need to be adapting.”
In wooded areas, that means cleaning debris off roofs, to protect houses from flying embers. Dr. Daniels wants government fire-planning efforts equal to the billions British Columbia has spent on earthquake resilience.
Mr. Messier said it’s important to plant fire-resistant species, because if trees don’t reach reproductive age, there’s a threat of forest collapse. He and Mr. Flannigan also suggest thinning trees in dense areas so blazes aren’t as intense.
I asked if cutting down trees is counterintuitive if fighting climate change is the ultimate goal. “Planting trees is a band-aid,” Mr. Flannigan said simply. “We have to reduce fossil fuel burning.”
Either that, or watch the world turn to ash.