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Wildfire Researchers Tell Us Why Our Future Is Flames

What's happening in Fort McMurray will become more common.

The images emerging out of forest-fire ravaged Fort McMurray are devastating. The skeletons of smoldering homes and charred metal truck carcasses conjure the image of some post-apocalyptic wasteland in what was, just the day before, a residential neighbourhood. As of Thursday, more than 80,000 people had been evacuated from the burning town. A province-wide state of emergency has been declared, and neighbouring communities are now under threat.

The fire was so extreme that it could be seen from space.

It's only the first week of May. To the people who live in Alberta, like me, it seems much too early in the season for a wildfire like this. It also seems exceptionally early for parts of the province to be experiencing searing temperatures in the low 30s, like those that helped fuel the Fort McMurray fire. It's hard not to blame climate change.

Research into the link between climate change and forest fires is clear on this fact: temperature matters. "Numerous studies suggest that temperature is the most important variable affecting wildland fire, with warmer temperatures leading to increased fire activity," wrote a team of nine authors in a 2009 paper published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire.

One of them, Mike Wotton, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service and a professor at the University of Toronto, spoke to me over the phone. He was wary of drawing a direct conclusion based on the single event in Fort McMurray.

"There will be more fires on the landscape"

"I don't think you can make any definitive link that you're seeing the result of climate change," Wotton said.

However, he would make broader links between forest fires, climate change, and what we may see in the future. Last year was a bad year for forest fires in Western Canada, with large blazes in Saskatchewan and B.C. The previous year, 2014, was one of the worst fire seasons on record around Yellowknife, in Canada's Northwest Territories.

"These are the sorts of seasons that we're expecting to see a lot more of," Wotton said. "These are the seasons that we're expecting to become a little more frequent. A little more normal, essentially."

Back to temperature. In Alberta's boreal forest, early season fires, like the one in Fort McMurray, aren't unheard of, said Steve Taylor, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service who is based in Victoria, B.C. The 2011 fire in Slave Lake, Alberta, which burned around 500 homes and businesses to the ground, started on May 14.

In the Alberta boreal forest, there is a narrow window after the snow melts, but before the leaves and brush green up, with an abundance of dry fire fuel—think dead leaves and grass. "With the warm spring and early snow melt, there is quite likely a link to El Niño," said Taylor. "And other scientists who study snow and snow melts have shown a link between changing climate and earlier snow melt."

As earlier snow melts, and the associated dry conditions, become more common, adding ignition and wind into the mix is enough to spark a fire like the one currently burning in northeastern Alberta. (In the B.C. coastal forests, you don't get the early spring drying, so fire season doesn't start until later—in July and August.)

It's also safe to say that climate change will create new challenges in Canada when it comes to firefighting. "Fire management in the circumboreal may be reaching a tipping point in the next decade or two," wrote a group of researchers, including Wotton, in a paper published in the journal Global Change Biology in 2009.

I ask if, closing in on a decade later, we've reached that so-called "tipping point," where forest fires have become too difficult to control. It all depends on your definition of tipping point, Wotton said.

"We are increasingly getting into a complicated wildfire management situation," he continued. "There will be more fires on the landscape. There seems to be lots of development activity continuing, lots of infrastructure out there. It's not decreasing. The wildfire management business is getting increasingly challenging and it will continue to do so."