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Forest Fires May Be Our New Reality If We Ignore Climate Change

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FORT MCMURRAY
Jonathan Hayward/CP
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"It was like a fire I've never seen before in my life."--Fire Chief Darby Allen

The damage is almost unimaginable.

Almost 100,000 people have been evacuated. Over 2,400 buildings and homes have been destroyed. People, entire families, are living in gyms, hotels, work camps and basements. The rebuilding process, even with the heroic efforts of firefighters who managed to save the majority of the city, will take years if not longer.

The fire, nicknamed "The Beast," is still going and is currently 25 kilometres from the Saskatchewan border. Despite the best efforts of firefighters and the dropping temperatures, it will likely not be extinguished for weeks, if not months, and then likely only by the rains of Mother Nature. The fire is more than three times as large as the city of Chicago, just less than twice the size of Los Angeles.

Insurance analysts are predicting the fire's price tag for insured industry losses to the city of Fort McMurray could be as high as $9 billion. If that figure holds that would make this disaster far and away the costliest disaster in Canadian history.

While most eyes were on Fort McMurray -- Glenevis, Fort McMurray First Nation and Anzac were also evacuated. Lac St. Anne, High Level, several rural areas north of the Alexis reservation, and Fort St. John residents across the border in British Columbia were evacuated due to other fires. And on Monday, another fire prompted temporary evacuation notices for residents of Conklin and Janvier.

In total 36 fires are currently blazing in Alberta, and another 39 are burning in British Columbia. So far this year Alberta has had more than 311. The even more worrisome thing is that it's only May -- the hottest months of summer are still ahead of us.

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The scope and scale of the destruction continues to escalate, but it may be our new reality according to experts at the University of Alberta and University of Toronto (you can listen to Dr. Flannigan's interview on CBC's Quirks and Quarks for a good overview of the multiple factors, including climate change, involved).

In short, our scientists are telling us that The Beast is one face of what climate change looks like. While the immediate focus needs to be on keeping people safe and supporting those who have been forced to evacuate, in the longer term we need to ask what is the responsible course of action in a warming world. What actions do we need to take to reduce the frequency and intensity of these events, and how do we make our communities safer?

May is on track to be the 12th consecutive hottest month globally ever recorded. The day the fires raced into Fort McMurray, Alta., set 24 different temperature records, including a record-breaking 32.6 degrees Celsius in Fort McMurray (20 degrees above normal) and a scorching 4.8 degrees above the previous record set in 1945.

These tinder-dry conditions helped lead to one of the earliest wildfire seasons in Alberta's history and fuelled the fire that raged through the city.

What's even more worrying is that we can expect more events like this in the future.

Fire season in Alberta began officially on March 1st this year, one month earlier than the traditional start date. Experts are predicting that this wildfire season will be even more severe than the last and with the damage that has been already been done in Fort McMurray the experts are tragically right.

Canada is also coming off another historically devastating wildfire season. Last year firefighters from Australia and the United States came to Canada to help us battle the record number of fires. In total 7,068 wildfires burned almost four-million hectares of land.

In addition to the dryer conditions, warmer temperatures fuelled by climate change have allowed the mountain pine beetle to move further and further north, devastating forests but also making them drier and more prone to fire in the process.

Add to this more intense and frequent El Nino events, a dwindling snowpack and less rainfall, and you have the perfect climate storm of conditions that helped cause the horrific impacts we saw in Fort McMurray.

What's even more worrying is that we can expect more events like this in the future.

It was just five years ago that the community of Slave Lake faced the same horrors community members of Fort McMurray are dealing with today and University of Alberta scientist Mike Flannigan says that number will continue to increase. "Right now, we have two or three bad fire years in a decade," Flannigan said. "By mid-century, I expect four or five bad years in a decade."

All of this has the undeniable fingerprints of climate change.

As we start talking about how to prevent and prepare for incidents like this in the future, climate change needs to be part of the conversation.

While wildfires have always been a part of the natural cycle what we can no longer deny is that we are far outside the natural cycle. A climate change wildfire action draft plan by the B.C. Ministry of Forests predicts that in the near future the size of fires will increase from an average of 7,961 hectares to 19,076 hectares. Fire severity is projected to increase by 40 per cent in the spring and 95 per cent in the summer, and the length of the fire season is expected to increase by 30 per cent.

As we start talking about how to prevent and prepare for incidents like this in the future, climate change needs to be part of the conversation. Fire barriers and berms are good but they wouldn't have stopped this fire and they won't stop those in the future if we allow temperatures to continue to rise. The result is more frequent, intense and severe super storms. In order to keep our communities safe, increased climate action needs to be one of the ways we act.

Alberta can't fight climate change alone, though. While we need to double our efforts here we also need to push for more federal and international leadership as well. The climate crisis is a global effort and it will only be solved from increased ambition and leadership from all.

Hopefully now that the world has seen the damage extreme fires can do, the ways it can disrupt lives and communities, we will act, both at home and abroad, to keep our communities safe by ensuring less of these types of events are part of our future.

To donate to help those displaced by the Fort McMurray fires text REDCROSS to 30333 to make a $5 donation or donate online.

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