Climate change causes overhaul of wildfire strategy

Climate change causes overhaul of wildfire strategy

02 October 2010

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Canada —  Forest Minister Pat Bell has introduced an overhaul of the province’s wildfire strategy to take into account the increasing frequency and intensity of forest fires brought about by climate change.

The past two fire seasons have racked up bills between three and four times the long-term average cost for fighting fires in B.C. and the growing instability in local weather patterns means things will have to be done differently, Bell said in an interview.

“We need to start thinking about how we harvest our forests to minimize the ability of fire complexes to grow together,” Bell said. In July of this year several small fires in the Cariboo linked together through wildlife corridors to form one large fire, forcing evacuations and a very expensive firefighting operation.

Harvesting forests to create man-made breaks between stands of timber that mimic the natural fire breaks exploited by firefighters could help contain fires, he said.

The Wildfire Management Strategy notes that “record” fire years as measured by area destroyed are coming with increasing frequency.

Climate models predict more of the same as temperatures rise in the north and interior of the province and there is some evidence that measurable climate change is already here.

Average temperatures recorded in Canada’s north this past summer are among the highest recorded in 63 years of data collection, according to preliminary figures released by Environment Canada.

Temperatures in northern B.C. and Yukon were slightly less than one degree Celsius above the recorded average, but the warming trend was more pronounced in the most northerly regions.

The arctic mountains and fiords were 1.9 C above average, the hottest summer on record. Summer in Mackenzie region, which encompasses much of the Northwest Territories, was the third hottest on record.

But most strongly indicative of a warming trend is that six of the past 10 summers in Canada’s arctic tundra have been ranked in the top 10 hottest summers recorded in that region since 1948.

“You can’t take a single weather event and say that’s climate change … but we have had a succession of near-record warm summers over the past 15 years and that is consistent with us pushing into a new, warmer climate,” said University of B.C. glaciologist Garry Clarke.

“Climate change is not just what some people think might happen,” Clarke said. “We are in for it.

“The amount of [carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere is going to double within the lives of people living today and that is going to lead to warming of two or three degrees [in southwestern B.C.],” he said. “But the change will be much greater in the higher latitudes.”

Climate models predict that temperature change will be greater in the arctic, an effect known as polar amplification, he said.

The northern ice sheets are getting smaller every year, exposing more of the Arctic Ocean, so that instead of the ice cap reflecting solar energy back into space, the exposed ocean will absorb the energy in an accelerating cycle.

Bell said that even as recently as the 1990s, his hometown of Prince George would get at least a week or two of -40 C weather during the winter.

“We haven’t seen those kind of temperatures in 10 or 12 years,” he said.

“Lightning storms that used to roll through and drop rain are now dry lightning storms, which are far more dangerous.”

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