From the Editor: April 2019
If the ecologists and fire experts are right, and I have no reason to doubt them, wildland firefighters could be in for another busy year.
By Grant Cameron
Hard to believe it could be worse, as last year was brutal, particularly for those in British Columbia and northern Ontario.
The folks in B.C. experienced their most destructive wildfire season ever and Ontario had its second worst.
Evidence suggests the trend may continue – if not this year, then in the years ahead, for sure. Inside this issue, we delve into the topic in more detail and look at some approaches and technologies being used to fight wildfires.
As Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, explains, climate change and a variation in traditional weather patterns is driving the transformation.
There is evidence to suggest that the jet stream, that powerful current of high-altitude winds that flow across Canada in the northern hemisphere, is weakening, the result being that hot, dry, windy conditions which are conducive to starting and spreading fires are becoming the norm.
The river of air gets its energy from the temperature difference between equatorial areas and the Arctic, but with the North warming up, the difference is getting smaller, and the jet stream is weakening, leading to more favourable conditions for strengthening the west coast upper ridge during the fire season.
One study suggests that in the past 15 years at least, the jet stream has been coiling up more, slithering farther north and south. When it gets stuck in the extreme pattern identified by the scientists the result is warmer temperatures and more hot, dry air that creates conditions for wildfires.
This, obviously, leads to longer wildfire seasons, more lightning strikes and drier forest fuels – ideal conditions for igniting wildland fires.
According to the Arctic Report Card, which gathers the latest science from top experts to track changes in the North, climate change has resulted in air temperatures in the Arctic that are warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe. None of the science suggests the situation is likely to improve.
In fact, climate models suggest that the trend over the next few decades will be toward more extreme situations.
One study published last October in the Journal Science Advances suggests that summers like 2018 will be 50 per cent more frequent by the end of the century if emissions of carbon dioxide and other climate pollutants from industry, agriculture and the burning of fossil fuels continue at a high rate.
The study identified how the faster warming of the Arctic twists the jet stream into an extreme pattern that leads to persistent heat and drought extremes in some regions, with flooding in other areas.
The Government of B.C., meanwhile, predicts that climate change will lead to a temperature rise of between 1.3 and 2.7 degrees by 2050.
The big question, then, is how to reverse the trend.
Robert Gray, a well-known Chilliwack, B.C., fire ecologist, has a good handle on this sort of thing so I reached out to him for some insight.
He maintains we can’t change the climate conditions that are contributing to current and future fire behaviour, as today’s climate is the result of carbon emitted decades ago.
And, even if we could drastically reduce our carbon emission, he noted, the positive benefit wouldn’t be seen for several decades in the future.
So, according to Gray, all we can do is affect what burns and how hot it burns. That means we must reduce the fuel available to forest fires around communities, through thinning and prescribed burning.
Perhaps not what we wanted to hear, but sage advice.