The Fort McMurray fire forces us to take a closer look at the relationship between fires and climate change as well as the relationship between fossil fuels, climate change and ecological degradation. We cannot attribute an individual fire to climate change with any certainty, however it would be inaccurate to say the climate change plays no role in wildfires. We can explore wider trends that do indicate that forest fires will increase as the planet continues to warm.
A combination of conditions, consistent with climate change predictions, contribute to the risk of fires. In Fort McMurray this includes drought, warm winters, low snow-packs, and unseasonable heat. Fire seasons are beginning earlier and extending longer. As reported by the CBC, this is the view of David Andison, adjunct professor with the faculty of forestry at UBC.
This is what the Fort McMurray fire looked like as it burned:
Here is a video of some of the destruction caused by the Fort McMurray Fire:
We know that the size of forest fires are on the increase in Canada. Natural Resources Canada statistics show that over the last quarter century an average of about 2.3 million hectares burns each year. In 2014, fires burned over 4.5 million hectares and in 2015 nearly four million hectares burned.
We can say with virtual certainty that planetary warming does increase the incidence of forest fires. We can also say with virtual certainty that the burning of fossil fuels are the primary cause of global warming. This takes on special significance given that fort McMurray is the world’s largest hub for oil sands (aka the tar sands) production. It should be noted that the tar sands are one of the most GHG intensive fossil fuels in the world. They are also the most environmentally destructive. This video from 2011, while Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was still in power reviews some of the more egregious impacts of Canada’s tar sands.
According to Addison the Fort McMurray Fire may be the new normal. “Climate change models and research all point to the idea that fire season is going to be longer in the coming years, and the fires will be more severe,” Andison said. “It will really just be the new normal,” he added.Andison suggests that we may have to contend with significant increases in forest fires. “Not just this year but the next 10 or 20 years.” Andison said.
We need to ask why Fort McMurray burned and follow that up with a discussion about what that means for the future of the town and fossil fuels in general.