Climate change doubled chance of weather conditions that led to record Quebec fires, researchers say

A helicopter carrying a water bucket is used to drop water on the Lower East Adams Lake wildfire burning in Scotch Creek, British Columbia, on Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

Climate change more than doubled the chances of the hot, dry weather that helped fuel the unprecedented wildfire season in eastern Canada that's driven thousands from their homes and blanketed parts of the U.S. with choking smoke, according to an analysis released Tuesday.

What's more, human-caused climate change made the fire season in Quebec — from May through July — 50% more intense than it otherwise would have been and increased the likelihood of similarly severe fire seasons at least sevenfold, researchers said.

"The biggest takeaway is, this is because of us that we have seen so many fires this year,” due to greenhouse gas emissions, said Yan Boulanger, a research scientist in forest ecology for Natural Resources Canada. He was one of 16 researchers who collaborated on the analysis for World Weather Attribution, an initiative that aims to quickly evaluate the role of climate change in the aftermath of extreme weather events.

Canada is in the middle of its worst wildfire season on record, with more than 5,800 fires burning over 153,000 square kilometers (59,000 square miles) from one end of the country to the other, according the the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. In Quebec alone, more than 52,000 square kilometers (20,000 square miles) has burned so far this year — an area 176 times larger than all of last year.

Though the analysis looked only at a region of Quebec, hot temperatures and drought conditions also were at a record level in the rest of Canada, “and we know that those fire-prone conditions also are increasing in severity, especially out West,” Boulanger said.

Ongoing wildfires have burned dozens of structures in a resort area of British Columbia and prompted authorities to evacuate about 20,000 people from Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories.

The analysis estimated the peak intensity of the fire weather by looking at real-world observations in a metric called the Fire Weather Index — which estimates wildfire risk by combining temperature, wind speed, humidity and precipitation — averaged over seven days. The researchers then compared that to a world without climate change using multiple computer simulations and historical weather data, a technique widely accepted in the scientific community. They found that the fire-weather conditions this year were twice as likely.

They also assessed the cumulative effect of the weather conditions from January to July, determining that the duration of those conditions was seven times more likely.

Peter Reich, a forest ecologist who wasn't involved in the analysis, said he was glad researchers didn't try to prove climate change caused the fires, but instead looked at the probability that the conditions that led to this year’s fire season would have occurred with or without climate change.

“To me, the scariest finding is just the magnitude of the greater likelihood of intense fire weather because of climate change,” said Reich, head of the Institute for Global Change Biology at the University of Michigan and a professor at the University of Minnesota. “It’s not just 10% more likely or 20% -- there’s a 600%” greater likelihood.

Although the analysis did a good job of assessing extreme fire weather, it didn’t capture how broadly it affected the entire country, especially in the arid West, which would show an even stronger connection to climate change, said Mike Flannigan, a professor for wildland fire at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.

“I've never seen such a wide geographical area in Canada on fire at the same time ... and fire season is not over yet,” he said.

Reich said the findings likely would apply across the planet because hotter temperatures increase the drying power of the air, and climate change makes fire vulnerability, severity and risk much higher by increasing the flammability of the materials and weather conditions that will produce and carry fire at the same time. “It kind of feeds on itself,” he added.

Canada’s fire season began early, after snow melted quickly and the warmest May-June period in more than 80 years combined with sparse rainfall to dry out vegetation and make it more flammable. Windy conditions also drove the wildfires throughout most of the country.

In Canada, 5% of the population identifies as Indigenous — First Nation, Métis or Inuit — yet researchers say they were disproportionately affected by wildfires because their communities often are isolated and in some of the most fire-prone areas, like the boreal forest.

The Algonquins of Barriere Lake in northern Quebec evacuated for nine days in June because of heavy smoke from wildfires that came within 9 miles (15 kilometers) of the reserve where about 350 to 400 people live, often miles apart, said Chief Casey Ratt, 50, who never experienced a forest fire before this year.

Ratt blames climate change, saying summer heat is more intense and the winters aren't as cold. Ice that used to form in October or November, now often doesn't form until January and then melts faster in the spring. He said the moose also are covered with ticks because many of the birds that used to eat them no longer show up.

“I think this will be the norm moving forward,” leaving them at risk for future fires, Ratt said.

Scientists say that risks will increase as the planet continues to warm. "That's a very big wake-up call” for communities that need to adapt, Boulanger said.

Flannigan said widespread, hotter fires are “the new reality” and will require new approaches to preventing and battling increasingly dangerous and intense blazes.

"Unfortunately, we're going to see more fire and smoke in the future," he said, explaining that there won't be enough rain to compensate drier fuels, leading to higher-intensity fires that are becoming almost impossible to extinguish.

He added: “We're really in uncharted territory.”


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