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As Canada's climate warms, forest fire intensity increases

“We’re entering a new territory with more fire activity in our future all over Canada… people who have been fighting fires for 30 to 40 years say they haven’t seen anything like it.”
20190608 gogama forest fire water bomber
A water bomber joins the battle at the forest fire near Gogama, south of Timmins. Supplied.

BANFF – Extreme fire danger in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks is going to be the new norm heading into the future.

Climate change is expected to bring warmer weather and drier conditions, making the wildfire season longer in Alberta, which now begins March 1 as opposed to the April 1 historic start date.

When wildfire researcher and professor Mike Flannigan talks about climate change and its impact on wildfires in Alberta and Canada, he doesn’t mince his words.

“If Banff’s annual temperature was 10 degrees warmer than today it would be like modern day New Mexico. It would be quite a different world and hopefully we can avoid that,” he said during a recent forum hosted by the Town of Banff.

“We’re entering a new territory with more fire activity in our future all over Canada. … people who have been fighting fires for 30 to 40 years say they haven’t seen anything like it.”

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, Banff has smashed six daily temperature records so far this summer – and it’s possible for more records to be broken in August.

Banff had its hottest day in recorded history on June 29 as the mercury soared to 37.8 Celsius during the unprecedented heat wave in western Canada. Banff’s previous hottest day was 34.4 C on July 7, 1941.

“Old records were absolutely demolished,” said Kyle Fougere, a meteorologist for Environment and Climate Change Canada, noting Banff records date back to 1887.

“There were four days in this heatwave  that were higher than that old maximum record temperature.”

Weather – particularly hot, dry and windy – is one of the top three ingredients needed for fire. The others are fuel and ignition sources.

“Most of area burns in Canada happen on just a few critical days of extreme weather,” said Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire and scientific director of the Canadian Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta. “And it’s just a few fires that burn most of the area.”

With tinder dry forest conditions, continuing warm temperatures and no significant rain in the immediate forecast, a fire ban continues to apply to Banff, Lake Louise, Field, front country and backcountry areas, day-use areas and campgrounds.

Silvio Adamo, the Town of Banff’s fire chief and director of emergency management, said the municipality is in constant communication with Parks Canada, noting regular fire patrols are being undertaken by the federal agency’s fire crews.

“We’re in extreme fire behaviour and obviously we’re concerned about that,” he said, noting the Town of Banff initiated a fire ban to stay in step with Parks Canada.

“We obviously can’t mitigate the natural ignition sources like lightning, but the fire ban helps limit opportunities for human-caused ignitions and hopefully that makes a difference.”

On July 20, a small spot fire was discovered near the border of Banff National Park in Kootenay National Park within the site of the lightning-sparked Verdant Creek fire that burned 18,000 hectares in 2017.

Parks Canada initial attack crews were quick to respond with helicopter support to bucket water on the small fire, which was less than one-hectare in size and surrounded by rock and the old fire site.

“Parks Canada fire crews patrolled the area over the past few days and observed no smoke,” said Justin Brisbane, a spokesperson for Banff National Park.

“On the morning of July 27, using infrared scanning, it was determined that there was no remnant heat or hot spots and the fire is now considered to be extinguished.”

There are currently no wildfires burning in Banff National Park, but Parks Canada has two initial attack crews and two rotary-wing helicopters stationed in Banff ready to go when necessary.

The biggest wildfire threat to the Banff townsite comes from the west and south.

Both the Town of Banff and Parks Canada have done a lot of WildSmart work around the townsite and in the Bow Valley to lower the risk of a wildfire taking out the town, including fire breaks.

In addition, the municipality has been focusing on its evacuation plans in the event of a wildfire threatening the town, including mapping and considering where to establish checkstops or road blocks.

Adamo said calculations have determined how long it would take to evacuate all people in their vehicles on the south side of the Bow River across the bridge, including visitor traffic at tourist attractions like the gondola and hot springs on Sulphur Mountain.

“We need about four hours to evacuate everyone on the south side,” Adamo said, noting there are plans for getting vehicles across both the Bow River vehicle bridge and pedestrian bridge.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into being prepared and we’re ready to respond. We’re trying to think about various contingencies and have back-up plans so that if a fire does start we can react quickly and effectively.”

Adamo said the municipality has practised and tested all of its equipment, including the two structural protection trailers and the converted type 3 engine that’s used as a wildland pump-and-run.

“We have everything in our means to try to make it as small a fire as possible or to extinguish it as quickly as possible to protect the community,” he said, noting mutual aid partnerships with other communities.

While British Columbia is in the midst of a horrific fire season, including a fire that destroyed the small town of Lytton, Albertans don’t have to cast their minds too far back to the devastating 2011 Slave Lake and 2016 Fort McMurray fires.

Closer to home, Banff residents were on high wildfire alert during the 2017 Verdant Creek fire, which forced the evacuation of Sunshine Village Ski Resort and Kootenay Park Lodge. In 2018, the Wardle Creek fire burned in the Vermilion valley of Kootenay.

In the mountain national parks, studies show fire suppression and climate change have altered the pattern, frequency and intensity of wildfires in Banff, Yoho, Kootenay and Jasper.

There used to be more frequent low and moderate intensity fires, whereas now there are fewer fires, but they burn extremely hot. For example, the 2003 Verendrye fire in Kootenay burned about 16,000 hectares, with 41 per cent characterized high severity.

Flannigan said the story is the same for much of Canada.

On average over the past 10 years, Flannigan said about 6,000 fires burn about a 2.8 million hectares a year across Canada, which has more than doubled since the early 1970s.

“That’s half the size of Nova Scotia burns every year on average, and in Alberta, about 1,300 fires burning 350,000 hectares; that’s just over half the size of Banff National Park so a big chunk of real estate,” he said.

“The fires go from sea to sea to sea, so it’s not just an Alberta issue or a B.C. issue. It’s a Canada issue.”

Flannigan said lightning-sparked fires in Canada, which are more typical in summer, represent about 40 to 50 per cent of all fires, but are responsible for 80 to 90 per cent of area burned.

“With climate change, we’re seeing a lot more area burned due to lightning-caused fires,” he said, noting there have been higher intensity, high severity crown fires burning in more recent times.

“Because of climate change, in some years we’re seeing early fire starts. The warmer it gets the more lightning we see, and all things being considered, the more lightning means more fire.”

At the same time, Canada spends about $900 million every year on direct fire management costs – and those costs are going up – and an increasing number of wildfire disasters forcing people to evacuate their homes.

The number of wildfire disasters in Canada by decade, according to the Canadian Disaster Database, was about 10 in 1980-90, 20 in 190-99, 32 in 2000-10 and more than 50 in 2011-17.

Flannigan said traditional approaches to fire suppression, including fire crews and air tankers, may be reaching their limit of economic and physical effectiveness, adding fire management is becoming increasing challenging.

“Of course, health and safety of Canadians is paramount, and of course, there’s property losses and timber losses, but we’re getting to the point where the status quo is no longer becoming an option,” he said.

“We’re already seeing movement away from that – and hats off to Parks Canada – they are were well ahead of the curve for allowing fire, for reintroducing fire to the landscape when possible.”

Along with the rising financial costs of fighting fires comes the increasing costs to human health as a result of air quality from smoke – not just in Alberta and B.C., but around the globe.

“Smoke is a really hazardous thing and our lungs don’t like wildland fire smoke,” Flannigan said.

“Globally, it’s estimated there’s 330,000 premature deaths due to wildland smoke, mostly south-east Asia from those perennial peat fires.”

Flannigan said wildfire smoke travels far, noting his home city of Edmonton had been enveloped in thick heavy smoke from faraway fires in previous years, at one point recording poorer air quality than India.

“I’m in downtown Edmonton and the probability of my house burning down is almost zero, but we have been impacted by smoke,” he said.

“Smoke is a real issue and the more we learn about it, the more we find out how hazardous it is for our health.”

Meanwhile, scientists on the Big Island of Hawaii at Mauna Loa Observatory have been monitoring atmospheric CO2 levels since the 1950s.

“We’re very close to 420-parts-per-million, and no human has ever seen 420-parts-per-million until now,” Flannigan said.

“The last time the Earth was at that was 3.5 million years ago, so you know we’re moving towards a much warmer world because of these greenhouse gases.”

The previous globe recorded monthly below average temperatures was in December, 1984, Flannigan said.

In terms of global warming, he said 2020 turned out to be tied or slightly below 2016 levels. Models predict up to a six per cent increase in global temperatures by 2100.

“2016 was a super El Niño, which generally is a much warmer year, but last year was not a super El Niño,” he said.

“As a matter of fact, much of the year we were in La Niña, which is supposed to be cooler than normal – and we’re rising and nothing is stopping it yet, unfortunately.”

Based on the work of more than 40 scientists, Canada’s Climate Change Report concluded Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world and is effectively irreversible.

The report found the average temperature in Canada is 1.7 C higher now than it was 70 years ago, while the average global temperature is up 0.8 C. Temperatures in the Canadian Arctic have risen even higher, with a  2.3 C increase.

“Our Arctic areas are rising at three times the rate,” Flannigan said in reference to the report. “It’s most noticeable in western and northern Canada.”

Along with a warming planet, Flannigan said comes an increase in extreme weather: fire, floods and droughts.

“As it warms, the atmosphere’s ability to suck moisture out of the fuels increases almost exponentially, so unless we get more rain to compensate for that – and the models suggest we’re not going to get that much more rain if at all – drier fuels mean it’s easier for a fire start, easier for a fire to spread, and it means more fuels available to burn, which means it may be a higher intensity fire, which are difficult to impossible to extinguish,” he said.

“We are going to continue to warm unless we change or ways – and hopefully we do.”

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