An aerial view of wildfire at Tatkin Lake in British Columbia, Canada on July 10, 2023.
BC Wildfire Service | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Canada is facing record-high temperatures and an unprecedented fire season this summer, resulting in a dangerous combination of heat, fire, and smoke. The principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Kristina Dahl, states that this moment is “terrifying” due to global temperature records breaking and fires and floods raging worldwide. Greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change, not only raise the planet’s temperature but also intensify the conditions necessary for wildfires. Even if humans were to cease burning fossil fuels immediately, the carbon dioxide already present in the atmosphere would continue to heat the planet for several decades. Michael Flannigan, a research chair at Thompson Rivers University British Columbia, affirms that the current situation is both unprecedented and a glimpse into the future.
The wildfires in Canada this year have broken records. As of June 27, the total area burned reached 7.6 million hectares, surpassing the previous record set in 1989. Currently, the total stands at 9.3 million hectares, equivalent to the size of South Carolina. This amount is significantly higher than the average of around 2.2 million hectares. Dahl describes the wildfire season as “astounding and record-breaking,” with a predicted total land burned equivalent to the size of Maine. The fact that fires are occurring simultaneously throughout the entire country is unprecedented.
The fire season is far from over, with 908 active fires in Canada, 576 of which are out of control. Flannigan states that he is uncertain about the end results since the fires keep spreading and are expected to burn throughout the summer, fall, and potentially winter. The heatwave has turned vegetation into kindling, making it susceptible to fire. Temperature records have been broken, with Fort Good Hope in the Northwest Territories experiencing temperatures over 99 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat domes, weather events that trap hot air, have been occurring more frequently, contributing to the spread of fires. The warmer temperatures and increased lightning caused by climate change make it more challenging to combat these fires.
Sarah Burch, a climate change professor at the University of Waterloo, emphasizes that climate change affects all factors necessary for wildfires: fuel, ignition, and weather. Land management, such as the impact of the mountain pine beetle and long-duration droughts, further increases flammability. Burch predicts an increase in the frequency and intensity of fires in the future. People will need to adapt to living alongside wildfires, as fire management cannot prevent all fires all the time. The spread of smoke from these fires is a global issue, with earlier reports of Canadian wildfire smoke reaching the United States.
While drone technology and artificial intelligence can aid in tracking and monitoring fire movement, they are not solutions in themselves. The long-term solution lies in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Flannigan believes that if society takes global action, there is still time to address this issue. He hopes that the significant challenges faced will motivate change in behavior and inspire action against the continued use of fossil fuels.