While the initial cause of the wildfires that devoured Northern California this month is still unknown, one thing for certain is that the fire season is no longer starting to feel like a season, per se, but an everlasting state of being for western U.S. Twenty-five years ago, I fought forest fires. I was a hotshot. Along with the others in my crew, I fought on the front lines of the flames, combatting fires – most of which were contained within a few days or at times a couple of weeks. Like many of my crewmates my position was summer employment. Fire season tended to begin mid-June and roar until mid-to-late September. Many of my team mates, like me, would return to university at the end of August or the beginning of September knowing that most of the season was behind us and that the remaining weeks could likely be managed by scaled down teams.
Such is the case no longer. In 2017 fires ravaged as early as April, and the Northern California blaze has only in the last few days been contained. Fires whipped through Oregon, Washington and Montana well into October with a bleak outlook to their ending before the end of November. Prayers rang out for early snow as a cool change in the weather from the dry heat seemed like the only answer to end the devastation. Additional teams were brought in from all corners of the country. Canada lent a hand to combat the disasters, during a year when British Columbia witnessed its own worst fire season in history. Sadly, the increase in wildfires is not just impacting Western U.S. and Canada; the number of forest fires in the EU has more than doubled this year with tragic fires destroying hundreds of thousands of acres through Croatia, Italy, Spain and Portugal. South America has witnessed its own devastation as has Australia.
While some claim climate change and global warming is not to blame for the start of the fires due to most of them starting directly by mankind or lightning strikes; there can be no doubt that the drastic change in weather has impacted the rate at which fires grow, dampening our ability to fight them efficiently and effectively. As we experience warmer temperatures that increase the arid conditions of the forests, trees turn into kindling and their brittle sticks allow fires to race through the parched alpine landscape, spreading rapidly with little warning as sparks can fly with the wind to far reaches starting new fires and growing faster and further with unprecedented speeds. Professor Mike Flannigan, wildland fire professor at the University of Alberta has explained that, “global warming has made conditions more favourable for intense flames,” because of the increase in temperatures and winds.
The term fire season no longer resonates. According to Professor Leroy Westerling, the fire season used to last 138 days but now is considered to range upwards of 222, and if climate change continues to progress the way it is, very possibly some areas will not have a fire season, but will be in fire risk all year long. Global warming is increasing at an alarming rate. This change is due to human activity and our impact on greenhouse-gas emissions. Furthermore, this increase in temperature leads to a correlated rise in the incidents of wildfires. Professor Westerling also explains that a broader shift is “going on in our climate system that’s going to continue for some time—for the foreseeable future,” increasing the frequency and severity of forest fires.
The signs are clear; we must take appropriate steps to reduce the frequency and tumultuous effect of wild fires. If we reduce carbon emissions and employ ways to limit our impact on the climate, we have a chance possibly to slow the rate at which the global heat increases, and hopefully in the process also reduce the rise of forest fires. Otherwise the consequences will likely be catastrophic, with wildfires raging around the world all year long.