How Canada’s wildfires are connected to climate change

Story by CBC Kids News • Published 2021-07-26 15:14

Tips for what you can do to help

Wildfires are burning across the country.

Many Canadians have been evacuated from their homes, as others experience some of the worst air quality conditions in the world.

Large fires are burning in parts of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and Yukon.

While wildfires are a normal part of summer, experts say the number and intensity of the fires is worse than ever this year.

They are blaming climate change.

Who - Many people living near hot spots have been evacuated from their homes and moved to safety. Firefighters and soldiers are working together to fight the fires.   What - 4,882 wildfires burning in Canada, as of July 26.   Where - In British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and parts of Quebec.   When - Fire season typically starts in April, reaches full height in July and ends in October. But scientists say that in some cases, fire season conditions are lasting up to 70 days longer than usual.   Why - Experts say climate change is to blame, along with natural causes (lightning strikes) and unnatural, human causes (campfires not put out, fireworks, cigarettes, ATVs, etc.)   How - Oxygen combined with heat and fuel (grass, needles, trees) makes a fire. With hotter temperatures, the natural fuel is drier, making it easier to catch fire and burn longer.

What is a wildfire?

A wildfire — or wildland fire — is an unplanned fire that happens in a natural area, like a forest or grassland.

A wildfire burning near Fort McMurray, Alberta, in 2016. Wildfire seasons are becoming longer, by about 70 days in some parts of the country. (Image credit: Cole Burston/Getty Images)

How does this wildfire season compare?

According to Natural Resources Canada, which is the federal government department that oversees forests, the number of fires this year has gone beyond the historical average, based on the past 25 years of reporting.

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, the red dots represent out-of-control wildfires burning in Canada on July 26. (Image credit: CIFFC)

“Nationally, the area burned thus far is more than 1.5 times what we have observed on average, in recent history,” said Ellen Whitman, forest fire research scientist with Natural Resources Canada.

What usually causes wildfires?

All fires are based on a formula: heat + oxygen + fuel + a spark = fire.

That formula can be triggered by many things, both natural and not.

For example, a common cause of wildfires is lightning strikes, where dry grass (fuel) is struck by lightning (heat + spark) and the surrounding oxygen or wind spreads the fire.

But sometimes, fires are caused by people.

Campfires that aren’t put out properly, hot exhaust from cars or all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), cigarette butts and fireworks are some possible causes.

Hot temperatures are to blame

This year, unusually hot temperatures in many parts of Canada have contributed to the increase in wildfires.

As temperatures rise, potential fuel (like leaves, grass, twigs and downed logs) gets drier and drier as the moisture is sucked out.

Dry fuel burns longer and hotter.

The connection to climate change

All four experts that CBC Kids News spoke to said yes, definitely, there is a connection between an increase in wildfires and climate change.

According to fire ecologist Bob Gray from Chilliwack, British Columbia, as the global temperature has increased, so have wildfires.

Why? Hotter temperatures mean:

More greenhouse gases contribute to even hotter temperatures 一 and the cycle continues.

“One feeds the other and we're stuck in that loop right now. The more fires we have, the more emissions we have and it contributes to global warming,” Gray said.

Will it get better? Or worse?

Experts also agree that wildfires are predicted to only get worse, not better, in the coming years.

There is likely to be an increase in the area burned and more frequent fires, said Whitman.

Gray agreed, “it’s only going to get worse.”

CBC Kids News reached out to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Jonathan Wilkinson, for a comment on what the federal government is doing to address the wildfire problem.

We hadn’t heard back by the time we published.

A plane drops red fire retardant on part of the Nk'Mip Creek wildfire near Osoyoos, British Columbia, on July 20. (Image credit: Mike Fitzpatrick/Reuters)

So what can we do about it?

According to experts Deborah Harford, Jean Andrey and Ellen Whitman, here are some ways to help:

TOP IMAGE CREDIT: Dylan Galeas/Reuters, graphic design by Philip Street/CBC

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