Fires Scorching Canada Part of Global Trend as Climate Changes

Fires Scorching Canada Part of Global Trend as Climate Changes

6 August 2009

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Global — Fires scorching the boreal and coastal forests of western Canada are among the worst in the world this year, part of a trend from Australia to Spain of more severe blazes fanned by global warming and changing climate.

British Columbia has more than 700 wildfires burning, forcing the evacuation of 5,000 residents from their homes. Almost the entire province, about 1 million square kilometers (386,100 square miles), is under a high alert.

“Canadians consider this year’s fires to be extraordinary and extreme,”Johann Goldammer, director of the Global Fire Monitoring Center, said in an interview from Freiburg, Germany. “Globally, things are developing for the worse.”

Douglas fir, spruce, pine and other trees in western North America are going up in smoke amid temperatures that have risen as much as 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit) a decade since the 1970s, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a January report. In B.C., twice as many fires are burning this year as last year, with more than 500 square kilometers blackened.

Many of the blazes are caused by lightning, with most of the province “tinder dry,” B.C. PremierGordon Campbell said on July 31. Hot, dry conditions in Alaska, which borders B.C. to the northwest, have led to a ban on commercial logging on state land, according to theAlaska Interagency Coordination Center.

Wildfires are becoming more severe and more people are being affected than in the past, Goldammer said. “Many fire- affected ecosystems are less able to recover from fires.”

Clearing land for a growing population, overgrazing and building homes out of wood close to forests are adding to the problem.

California Fire Season

In California, the fire season is getting longer and may eventually last all year round, Goldammer said. In May, 30,000 people were evacuated in Santa Barbara County, forcing GovernorArnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency.

Fires ravaged southeastern Australia in February after temperatures soared above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). As many as 173 people died and 2,000 homes were destroyed in Australia’s worst bushfire disaster.

Extreme fires also occurred this year in Nepal, where 40 people were killed and 100,000 hectares of high-altitude alpine forests were destroyed in the Himalayan nation.

On Spain’s Canary Islands, a popular tourist site in the Atlantic off Morocco, fires this summer forced about 2,000 people to evacuate burning pine forests on La Palma. Fires also torched bone-dry lands in the coastal Spanish town of Mojacar.

Worsening Global Warming

Forest fires are worsening global warming, making it harder for societies to adapt to drought and higher temperatures and putting lives at risk as landscapes lose vegetation, according toJennifer Balch, a researcher at theNational Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California.

Almost one-third of the planet experiences “frequent” fires, according to research by Emilio Chuvieco, a geographer at theUniversity of Alcala, Spain, and colleagues.

While it’s too soon to determine whether this year will be worse than last for fire damage, Goldammer said the severity and intensity of the destruction is increasing, which can also affect insurance for homes and businesses.

“We can see that there are changes happening on a global scale,” he said.

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