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Claudia Cornwall is the author of British Columbia in Flames: Stories from a Blazing Summer.

It could have been us, I thought, as I read the grim news about fires tearing through California, Oregon and Washington State. At least 35 people, including a one-year-old child, have died, and dozens more are missing. In California, more than 1.5 million hectares of forest have burned. Oregon has lost 450,000 hectares; in Washington State, 250,000. Thousands of homes are gone and several communities are almost completely destroyed.

In 2017 and 2018, huge fires stormed across British Columbia, too. In each of those years, we lost more than a million hectares to the flames; in 2017, more than 60,000 people, a record number of evacuees, had to leave their homes. Some came back to find their houses and cottages reduced to ashes.

Megafires stretching over 50,000 hectares have become more common on both sides of the border. Destructive and unpredictable, they are hard to fight. They produce formidable thermal updrafts, which create low-pressure areas at ground level. As air rushes in to fill the void, these fires create their own winds. If the heat is especially intense and the wind conditions turbulent, a fire tornado, practically impossible to contain, may develop. During this U.S. fire season, these whirlwinds, once very rare, have been reported almost weekly.

Rising global temperatures have unleashed a cascade of damaging effects. In B.C.’s Cariboo, over the past century, average temperatures are up by 1 C; southern California has warmed even more – 1.6 C. This year, the state set world records – charting 54.5 C in Death Valley. Hot, arid summers create tinder dry forests. More powerful storms blow down more trees – increased fodder for rapacious blazes. Pests such as the pine beetle thrive and infest trees, which then die, adding to the fuel load. Lightning is more likely; in one week in August, 12,000 strikes hit California – a veritable bombardment.

We need to protect our forests. Logging is the economic lifeblood of many western towns. Trees can also be a bulwark against climate change, by absorbing the carbon in our atmosphere that causes global warming. In 1990, as they had been doing for thousands of years, B.C. forests inhaled more carbon dioxide than they emitted. Indeed, they absorbed enough carbon dioxide to compensate for the emissions that B.C. residents produced by burning oil and coal for transportation, heating and industrial processes. Then, B.C.’s forests were a carbon sink, and the province as a whole, carbon-negative. But by 2017, debilitated by the pine beetle epidemic and afflicted by enormous fires, the forests had become major emitters of carbon.

Cool and shady old-growth coastal rainforests are remarkably resistant to fires on their own. However, our second-growth and interior forests do need some intervention to become more resilient. Our zealous fire suppression efforts over the past 80 years have not been helpful. Some people call this the Smokey the Bear effect, after the cartoon character who started educating Americans about wildfire prevention in a U.S. Forest Service ad campaign in 1944. Modest blazes can remove brush and small trees while leaving older ones, well-protected by thick bark, alone. But after we excluded these cleansing fires from our landscapes, our interior forests grew dense, laden with flammable brush and vulnerable to catastrophic conflagrations.

Chris Dicus teaches forestry, specializing in fuel management, at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. In a 2009 paper, he stated that before the Gold Rush, Californian forests had 50 to 70 trees an acre, whereas at the time of his report, they had 400. When I asked him whether anything had changed since, he said: “It’s gotten worse. Everything has grown up; it leaves a very unhealthy forest.” Mr. Dicus said that in California, prescribed burning is being considered as a solution. But he advised caution. He maintained that at present, the forests were so unhealthy it might not be possible to safely light a fire without physically removing some of the flammable material ­first.

Many B.C. forests are choked, too. In 2017, they had three times m­­­­­ore fuel on the ground than in 2005. Fire ecologist Rob Gray told me that in some areas, prescribed burns, as well as some conversion to less flammable hardwoods, are being contemplated to make our forests more resistant to fires. The Swedes have another strategy worth considering: They thin their forests and harvest the saplings as well as brush left after logging operations. The biomass they create meets a quarter of their energy needs. It has value, so they have no trouble collecting it and keeping fuel off the forest floor.

The thick acrid smoke from Washington State that blanketed Vancouver for several days reminds me that we share the same atmosphere. What is happening down south is bad news for us. The U.S.'s carbon pollution is our carbon pollution. It will affect our climate and ultimately the health of our trees.

Fortunately, this year, B.C.'s fires were comparatively moderate; 15,173 hectares burned since April. But the apocalypse can return. We must heed the fire alarm in the United States, grapple with climate change head-on and become better stewards of our forests.

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