B.C. scientists link catastrophic wildfires to human-caused climate change

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      It isn’t your imagination. In recent years, B.C. wildfires have burned with extraordinary ferocity.

      The latest 10-year average for hectares burned across B.C. is 151,041.

      Then came 2017. That year, the province lost 1,216,053 hectares to wildfires.

      “The summer of 2017 will be remembered as one of the worst wildfire seasons in British Columbia’s history,” reads a government summary of that year.

      The province called it “unprecedented,” and supported its use of the word with hard statistics.

      “It was unprecedented by measure of: the amount of land burned (over 1.2 million hectares), the total cost of fire suppression (over $568 million), and the amount of people displaced (roughly 65,000 evacuated),” the summary continues.

      Then 2018 was worse.

      During the last fiscal year, wildfires destroyed 1,353,833 hectares of forest across B.C.

      The numbers speak for themselves. We have a problem. But what is its cause?

      Humans, at least in part, scientists at the University of Victoria say they have determined.

      “Key factors in this unprecedented event were the extreme warm and dry conditions that prevailed at the time, which are also reflected in extreme fire weather and behavior metrics,” begins a summary of an academic paper authored by Megan Kirchmeier‐Young, a postdoctoral fellow with the Canadian Sea Ice and Snow Evolution Network and Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, and four of her colleagues.

      From there, the paper’s language gets a little technical. But the researchers’ conclusion is simple enough: B.C. has always experienced wildfires, but the effects of human-caused climate change are making such fires more intense.

      “Using an event attribution method and a large ensemble of regional climate model simulations, we show that the risk factors affecting the event, and the area burned itself, were made substantially greater by anthropogenic climate change,” the paper reads.

      “We show over 95 percent of the probability for the observed maximum temperature anomalies is due to anthropogenic factors, that the event's high fire weather/behavior metrics were made 2‐4 times more likely, and that anthropogenic climate change increased the area burned by a factor of 7‐11,” it continues.

      “This profound influence of climate change on forest fire extremes in B.C., which is likely reflected in other regions and expected to intensify in the future, will require increasing attention in forest management, public health, and infrastructure.”

      The paper is available in the online academic journal Earth’s Future. A media release accompanying the paper’s publication further explains the research team’s methodology.

      It explains they “used climate simulations to compare two scenarios—one included realistic human influence on the climate, while the other factored minimal human influence.

      “Researchers found that the extreme high temperatures were made 20 times more likely by human-induced climate change,” the release continues. “They also found the area burned seven to 11 times larger than would have been expected without human influence on the climate. Extreme temperatures combined with dry conditions increase the likelihood of wildfire ignition and its spread.”