Climate skeptics misrepresent footage of Northwest Territories fire suppression effort

A video of a helicopter releasing flames over a forest spread across social media accompanied by claims that the intense wildfires in Canada's Northwest Territories were set intentionally to increase concerns about climate change. This is false; the video depicts a planned ignition, which a local fire official said is a common technique used to manage the spread of flames.

"Climate change caught on camera," says the caption of a video posted August 21, 2023 to Twitter, which recently rebranded as "X."

The video shows a helicopter carrying a suspended canister dropping flames on a forested landscape -- with text over the clip saying the footage is from the Northwest Territories in Canada. The post received more than 19,400 likes and was shared more than 12,000 times.

The video jumped to Facebook and Instagram where it was amplified by former Welsh football player David Cotterill.

"The 'Global Boiling' speech a few weeks back was the catalyst and the signal for the Deep State to kick off their Psyop-Climate Change Hoax," said the text of another Facebook post, referencing comments made by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the end of July (archived here).

<span>Screenshot of a Facebook post, taken August 23, 2023</span>
Screenshot of a Facebook post, taken August 23, 2023

After an early and intense start to wildfire season in Canada, the west of the country is facing another devastating wave of forest fires which have caused the evacuations of tens of thousands of people in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories (NWT).

But as with claims AFP debunked about fires in British Columbia and the Yukon, the video from the NWT shows officials legitimately fighting forest fires.

Origin of the video

Reverse image and keyword searches show the helicopter video is part of a montage of footage (archived here) released by the NWT government, showing the firefighting effort near Ingraham Trail, a highway in the territory.

Mike Westwick, a fire information officer for the territorial government, said the video depicts a technique to burn off vegetation and take away fuel from approaching flames. He said prescribed fire is a common way of managing the spread of a wildfire.

"The goal is to limit that fire's growth to the south, which is towards the Ingraham Trail, which is one of our largest unincorporated populated areas in the territory," Westwick said. "There are hundreds of residences down there, so obviously a priority in managing this fire is to protect those places."

This action, also known as a backburn, was conducted while weather conditions were less humid, with winds that would not push the fire toward the areas crews were attempting to protect.

According to the most recent update from the NWT government (archived here), the fire is being held and it is not likely the Ingraham Trail will be touched by the blazes.

<span>Screenshot of an Instagram post, taken August 23, 2023</span>
Screenshot of an Instagram post, taken August 23, 2023
<span>Screenshot of the Government of the Northwest Territories' video as it appears on the CBC News website, taken August 23, 2023</span>
Screenshot of the Government of the Northwest Territories' video as it appears on the CBC News website, taken August 23, 2023

Westwick said the NWT government released the video in an effort to share information about how wildfires are fought.

"I think that there's always value in actually showing people what's being done to manage fires -- to be open and transparent about the tactics that we're using," he said. "It's better to show something and explain something to folks than it is to keep it in the dark."

Climate change impacts wildfires

In Canada, 2023 has been an unprecedented year for wildfires, with more than 15.3 million hectares burned as of August 22, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (archived here), already doubling of the previous 1989 record.

Since the start of the season, social media users have invoked false or misleading claims about the blazes' origins to deny the existence of climate change and its effect on the increase in wildfires.

Scientists and government officials have linked the extreme fire season to windy, dry and hot conditions, exacerbated by climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its most recent report (archived here) that human activities have "unequivocally" caused global warming.

<span>Screenshot of a post on X, taken August 23, 2023</span>
Screenshot of a post on X, taken August 23, 2023

Westwick said the combination of rising temperatures and falling humidity, with an environment that is built up with vegetation which flames can use as fuel after previous zero-fire forest management policy, has contributed to the incendiary situation in Canada this year.

"You give the fire more to work with, more to burn, it's going to have more routes to get to places you don't want it to go."

He said prescribed burns, like the one seen in the video of the helicopter, clear out the fuel for imminent wildfires by getting rid of built-up vegetation.

Find more of AFP's reporting on misinformation in Canada here.