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The Wettest Place in North America Is Burning

Extreme drought is causing Canada’s only rainforest to dry up, and now it's on fire.

Vancouver Island is home to the wettest place in North America—and right now it's on fire.

Drought has plunged the the Port Alberni-Clayoquot Region, part of Canada's only rainforest, into one of the worst dry seasons on record. Forest fires are spreading quickly through sun-scorched woods that, in the past, have received almost seven metres—or 22 feet—of precipitation per year.

The fire, which has been burning since last Saturday on Dog Mountain near Sproat Lake, has reached over 245 hectares and is still spreading. The region is also home to Henderson Lake; just 50 kilometres south of the blaze, it is, on average, North America's wettest place.

So far 35 firefighters and four helicopters have been deployed to help stop the fire, which British Columbia Wildfire Service suspect was human caused.

"What we're experiencing now is the kind of future that will become the norm here within a few decades"

The region around Port Alberni receives most of its precipitation in the winter and typically goes through a dry spell in July and August. But this year, the dry season started two months early, leaving the area in the middle of a drought with half the summer left to go.

Those conditions are perfect for large forest fires.

"We have a lot of fuel to burn because these forests are big and old. Some places haven't seen fire in in over 150 years," said Richard Hebda, curator of botany and geology at the Royal British Columbia Museum. He added that the drought-stricken forests of Vancouver Island are extra susceptible to fire due to a lack of controlled burns in recent years which usually help remove extra brush from the forest floor.

In a not-so-surprising turn of events, climate change is likely to blame. As Arctic temperatures continue to rise in the North, the Pacific coast can bank on hotter, longer, and more dangerous dry seasons becoming the new normal.

Dog Mountain near Sproat Lake, which is currently on fire. Image: British Columbia Wildfire Service

"It's got a good deal to do with the jet streams changing their behaviour," Hebda said. He explained that, traditionally, the temperature difference between the warmer mid-latitude jet stream moving up from California and colder northern jet stream moving down from the Arctic causes the jet streams to move from West to East across the country. This pattern is the key to the normal cycles of wet and dry seasons typically enjoyed by Vancouver Island's rainforest.

But as the Arctic warms, the temperature difference between these two jet streams is decreasing, causing them to slow down and exaggerate seasonal weather cycles, making the wet season wetter and the dry season drier.

"Over the last twenty years scientists have been talking about British Columbia becoming like California, and here we are. We're California," Hebda sighed. In the long term, longer, drier summers could mean losing the rainforest, the heart and soul of Pacific ecotourism, forever.

"What we're experiencing now is the kind of future that will become the norm here within a few decades," said climate scientist Trevor Murdock at the University of Victoria, adding that we should "still expect extreme years on top of the new normal, and [that] those extremes will be new extremes that we haven't yet seen in recorded history."

"I certainly envisioned this to be the condition with climate change; I didn't envision it to happen so quickly"

Over the next century, climate scientists predict that Vancouver Island's iconic trees—such as the cedar redwoods, western hemlocks and Douglas Firs—could die off in large numbers, completely transforming the island from a rainforest ecosystem to something else entirely.

"Dry zones will shift Westward and become dry rainforest. [...] The east side will probably lose its tree cover. Progressively, by the end of the century, we'll be more like the Bay area of California," Hebda said, adding that "parts of the rainforest will no longer be rainforest."

And while the government is sending out extra firefighters to contain fires on the island during this unprecedented dry season, little can be done to stave off the long-term effects of drought.

By analyzing 3,700 year old cedar tree rings, Hebda's team discovered that the health of cedar populations has in the past declined quickly within a short time of being exposed to a warmer climate—and he worries we have reached this point again. Because some trees require constant groundwater to survive, long dry seasons can kill susceptible coniferous species with short roots.

"I certainly envisioned this to be the condition with climate change; I didn't envision it to happen so quickly," Hebda said, adding that the consequences of these conditions will not only change the ecosystem on Vancouver Island, but will ultimately change the distribution of ecosystems and climate all across the country within the next century.

"Its coming everywhere, no place will remain unaffected. [...] The overall temperature is changing—period," Hebda added. "Fundamentally this is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced and we need to read the signs, as people who spend a lot of time in the bush would say."