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There are lots of ways to clinically state the magnitude of wildfires: fire season starts earlier, lasts longer and the infernos are bigger; or that this isn’t an anomaly – the large, widespread wildfires this spring will happen more and more often; or that by the 2050s the amount of forests burned each year is predicted to double; or that ever-escalating climate heating is the propellent of all of this.

Or one can turn to three words from a veteran firefighter. Jamie Coutts is the retired fire chief in Slave Lake. His Northern Alberta community thought it was well prepared, but in 2011 Slave Lake was overrun by flames. Wildfires have morphed into a different sort of menace – burning, in Mr. Coutts’s words, “hotter, faster, crazier.”

Last week marked a broad realization across much of eastern North America of the whipsaws of climate heating. The orange pall of wildfire smoke smothered numerous cities – Ottawa, Toronto, New York among them. More than 100 million people were affected. Instead of enjoying pleasant spring days, we turn to the air quality health index, learn that seven means high risk, and are advised to mask up outdoors.

None of this is brand new. People in the West know it all too well. British Columbians brace themselves each summer. Toronto has at times seen summer days ruined by wildfire smoke. But the scale is something new. Canada is on track for its worst-ever fire year. As of last week, 3.8 million hectares had burned across the country. It’s a huge amount of land: five times larger than the sprawl of the Greater Toronto Area. And it’s way higher than the annual average of 2.9 million hectares burned in the 2010s, which was way higher than the 1.7 million hectares annually from 2000 to 2009. Escalation is obvious. The 1980s saw three years of two million-plus hectares burned; in the 1990s, three; in the 2000s, four; in the 2010s, seven; and twice so far in the 2020s.

It all circles back to the interconnected extremes of human-caused climate heating. Rare levels of heat this spring create conditions for wildfires to thrive. Decades of fire suppression and logging made forests more susceptible to fire. Pests that flourish in a warmer climate eat up trees and make them further susceptible to flames. Hurricane Fiona last September toppled trees in Nova Scotia that burned this spring.

How we got here is clear. A study of B.C.’s then-record 2017 fires drew a line between climate heating and the charred forests. A study last month connected fossil fuel and cement production with more than one-third of the forests torched in western North America over the past 35 years.

And it will get hotter and hotter. This summer, temperatures across almost all of Canada are expected to be above normal. Temperatures here are rising at double the rate of the global increase. The rise from preindustrial times had been around 1.2 degrees Celsius. An increase of 1.5 C – which the Paris Agreement set as the hoped-for limit – will probably be eclipsed for the first time by 2027, according to new work from the World Meteorological Organization.

What can be done starts foremost with cutting greenhouse-gas emissions as fast as possible. It means major investments in clean power to slash use of oil and natural gas across the economy. Every country must act. It may seem like domestic emissions are a small part of the world total, but consider that Canadian per-capita emissions are three-quarters greater than China’s and, historically, Canada has emitted close to as much as all of South America. The world has to get off its addiction to fossil fuels. As writer John Vaillant chronicles in his new book Fire Weather, combustion of fossil fuels has set the world ablaze.

On wildfires themselves, they cannot be stopped, but there is much to do – from strict planning on what is built where and how it is built, to more use of methods such as prescribed burns. Canada already spends $1-billion a year on wildfires. The bill will rise. Conservatives continue to argue against the carbon tax and decry the cost of a litre of gasoline. There are other, bigger costs. Wildfires – like flooding – are a fearsome example, both in destruction (recovery tallied in the billions of dollars) and mitigation (investments tallied in the billions of dollars) – and, less easy to quantify, how they can wreck spring and summer days: windows closed, outdoor plans cancelled, air that’s dangerous to breathe.

Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke of the country’s stretched resources, and said that governments must grapple with “how we can equip ourselves to deal with this new reality.” This space will have more later this week.

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