Climate fears over Canada’s ‘hellish’ wildfire
The world is watching in horror as a ‘multi-headed monster’ burns through a Canadian forest. It shows no sign of stopping — and scientists are blaming climate change. Can anything be done?
No one knows what sparked the enormous wildfire that has been raging in Canada for more than a week. Maybe it was an unlucky strike from a lightning bolt. Maybe human accident. But the ‘majestic and menacing’ flames which first flickered into life last Sunday have now consumed around 700 square miles of land, forcing 88,000 people to flee their homes in the oil-rich city of Fort McMurray, Alberta.
‘In no way is this fire under control,’ said the province’s premier, Rachel Notley, this weekend. Indeed, scientists have warned that the flames could roar for months.
Elsewhere this weekend, one of Fort McMurray’s evacuees watched as her old neighbourhood went up in smoke on TV. ‘It’s like watching part of your past disappear.’
Incredibly, there have been no deaths or injuries in the flames so far. But Canada has found itself contemplating a terrifying reality: this fire may be the worst disaster in its history, but it is unlikely to be the last. Scientists say that the wildfire season has been getting longer; it used to start in May, but now the first flames appear in March. This year a combination of high temperatures, little snow, and an early drought all led to dry forest floors, helping the fire to spread further and faster.
Some of this can be blamed on the fierce El Niño causing trouble around the globe. But scientists have also pointed to another, man-made cause: climate change. And it is getting worse.
‘Right now, we have two or three bad fire years in a decade,’ said Mike Flannigan, a scientist at the University of Alberta. ‘By mid-century, I expect four or five.’
Climate change is just one of many factors behind Alberta’s ‘perfect storm’. And yet similar trends have been spotted in the USA, where 10m acres were consumed by wildfires last year alone. ‘We now have year-round fire seasons,’ said one ecologist.
Fight fire with fire
There are ways to ease the risk of out-of-control wildfires, say scientists. For example, part of the problem is that extinguishing smaller wildfires in the past has allowed the forest’s undergrowth to build up, essentially providing more kindling when a true disaster strikes. By letting nature take its course during small fires, we could prevent ‘megafires’ from getting even worse.
But others warn that we must not miss the bigger picture. As long as humans continue to burn fossil fuels, there will be no easy solutions. ‘The more carbon that goes into the atmosphere, the warmer the world will get, and the more likely we are to see devastating fires like the one now raging,’ wrote Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker last week. Fort McMurray is not just a wake-up call for Canada — it is a warning to the entire world.
- What would you take with you if a fire forced you to evacuate your town?
- How should Canada respond to the threat of more wildfires?
- Write a diary entry of a Canadian teenager who has been forced to evacuate their home.
- Research other potential effects of climate change, and some possible solutions. Present your findings to the class.
Some People Say...
“It is too late to fight climate change.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- No one has been hurt. Is it really so bad?
- Canada has been extremely lucky to avoid any serious casualties in the flames so far. But it is still a terrible loss for those whose homes and possessions have been destroyed. It is unclear when, if ever, they will be able to return. The issue is also far bigger than just one city. Climate change is making wildfires worse all around the world, as well as impacting on other natural disasters, like floods and drought.
- Why can’t they put the fire out?
- Hundreds of fire fighters are working to do just that, including dozens from around Canada who have travelled to Fort McMurray just to help out. But the fire is simply too big for the emergency services to deal with alone — unless helped by heavy rain they say they could be fighting it for many weeks.
- 700 square miles
- As reported by BBC News on Sunday evening. For perspective, this is an area roughly the size of Surrey.
- Fort McMurray
- The city is part of an area which is rich in carbon-heavy crude oil. Some fear that the fire’s effect on Canada’s energy industry could hurt its wider economy.
- Canada is split into ten provinces and three territories. Each has its own first minister, or ‘premier’.
- High temperatures
- On Tuesday last week the area recorded 32°C heat, twice its usual high of 16°C. According to government records the number of unseasonably hot days in Alberta has increased since 1950. Around the world, scientists have recorded ‘unprecedented’ high temperatures in the first few months of 2016.
- El Niño
- A temporary warming of the Pacific Ocean which naturally occurs every two to seven years. So far the El Niño of 2015-2016 has rivalled the worst on record (1997-98).
- 10m acres
- According to the National Interagency Fire Center, this was a record-breaking area of land in the USA. It is equivalent to 15,625 squares miles, about the size of Switzerland.