During one week this past summer, I was largely confined inside my home due to extremely poor air quality. The air had been hazy with fine particulate matter from hundreds of forest fires burning throughout British Columbia, including one only 10 km from my home in Nanaimo, BC. The summer weather has been hot and dry, turning our forests into a giant tinderbox, poised to catch fire from the most unlikely sources.
Lightning strikes have caused a larger than usual number of these fires, but human activity has still accounted for a quarter of the fires, which is somewhat less than the 40% average over the past 10 years. Pieces of glass that focus the sun’s rays, and cigarette butts are among the culprits linked to humans, as are illegal camp fires and flares of all things. A report on CBC Radio One indicated that people are still not getting the message that it is critically important to obey the fire bans that are in effect throughout the province, and to refrain from smoking or discarding cigarette butts by throwing them on the ground. No matter how much you stomped on it, there is no guarantee that it is truly out! This report from last year’s record fire season is a clear indication that campers frequently ignore campfire bans. Each fire forces fire fighters to risk their lives in order to keep us safe, and each new fire diverts both human and physical resources from other fires. The fires also consume a natural resource that is central to British Columbia’s economy, leading to loss of jobs and revenue. In addition, the enormous costs of fire-fighting deplete funds that could be better used to solve a housing crisis that grips many communities in southwestern BC, or for improvements to health care and education. That is money that comes from taxes, so it is baffling that people do not care when in essence, they are hurting their own economic prospects! In 2017, a record $560 million was the estimated cost of the worst fire season the province had ever experienced at that time. As of the end of August, however, 2018 had surpassed the previous year, and was ranked as the worst fire season in BC’s history with an astounding 13,000 square km (1,351,314 ha to be precise) affected. The cost will possibly to be slightly lower, however, because the fires were more remote and therefore threatened fewer human habitations.
The blame for fires has often been placed on bark beetle outbreaks, global climate change, and/or clearcutting. While some of those factors can certainly play a role in terms of the severity and spread of the fire, neither is the root cause (clearcutting is probably beneficial for slowing fires, rather than a contributing agent). Lately, there has been an increase in accusing the government over poor forest management and inadequate responses to the fires, and not only by Donald Trump. It is certainly understandable that affected citizens are looking for simple answers and someone to blame, but unfortunately it is more complex than that. In order for fire to become a problem, favourable weather (=drought and wind), abundant fuel, and an ignition source have to co-occur. Last year essentially presented us with the perfect storm in that regard. Fire scientists in Canada can predict the risk of a wildfire occurring by using the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System, which is based on 14 data inputs in 6
categories, including moisture, topography, fuels, and weather. In part, predictions allow for planning to ensure that resources are in place to fight fires, should they occur, but they are also there to alert the public to take precautions. In spite of this, 2 of 5 fires are completely preventable if people heeded the warnings and fire bans. In the past few years, that is about $200 million per year that taxpayers have to cover. And this does not include the downstream costs, e.g., lost revenue for forest companies and businesses, health issues arising from smoke etc.
BC was not the only victim of historic fires. California and Australia suffered as they often do, but even my native Sweden, where a forest fire less than 10 ha is first page news (although historically, large areas were often burned), 20,000 hectares went up in flames, prompting firefighters from numerous EU countries to send help. This is in a country where road access is generally very good (allowing prompt response to any fire), forests are intensively managed, and the climate tends to be relatively cool, and sometimes quite wet. In the 26+ years I lived in Sweden, I never saw a forest fire. Here in Canada, I have seen numerous forest fires, but apart from the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire, the last 2 years have been exceptional. And it is unlikely to get better.
Fires release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which leads to further warming. A particularly disturbing sign is that normally perpetually wet ecosystems, like northwestern Vancouver Island, also experienced a significant number of severe fires. Now Australia is experiencing severe heat, breaking records and killing animals. The warning signs are clear, but politicians worldwide seem to only pay lip-service to the problem with global climate change, even after IPCC warned that we are quickly approaching a precipice.
When a planet dies in the universe, does anybody care?