New science tells us why fire is a growing threat

Fires are becoming more frequent and research tells us that residents have far less time to escape. Leora Eisen

Fire has always been a force of nature – a part of the landscape that was on earth before we were.  But are today’s fires becoming more dangerous? Scientists believe climate change is changing wildfire – they are becoming more frequent, and more extreme. Climate change scientists have warned that a one-degree rise in temperature leads to a 12% increase in lightning, which causes 45% of all forest fires in Canada

This year, British Columbia experienced its worst fire season on record. Deadly fires have been blazing around the world, from Portugal to Chile to California.

But people who reside in or near nature aren’t the only ones living in a more dangerous environment. Even city dwellers face increased risk. In the past, from the time the smoke alarm went off until a house was fully engulfed in flames, it used to take about 17 minutes. Today, residents have as little as three and a half minutes to escape.

Why is this happening? Some of the reasons are surprising. Here are some of the hidden dangers revealed in The Nature of Things documentary Into the Fire.

We choose to live near areas that are at increased threat of wildfire

More of us are choosing to live on the edge of a forest or grassland called the wildland-urban interface. According to Canadian Forest Service scientists, 60 percent of our communities face an increased threat of wildfire. If you added up all the area at risk, it would cover half the size of Alberta.

A wet winter can lead to more fires in the summer 

British Columbia experienced a wet winter followed by flooding in the spring. Although it seems counterintuitive, that can actually lead to a more active fire season in the summer. Lots of moisture causes more grass to grow, creating more fuel to burn during a hot, dry summer. “There’s more fuel, so the fire’s more intense, and harder to manage and control,” says wildfire expert Mike Flannigan.

It’s often the tiny embers that threaten homes 

During an intense forest fire, we assume that it’s the giant flames or radiant heat causing nearby homes to ignite. But it’s often tiny embers – firebrands of burning bark, branches and cones – that spark small fires on front lawns or backyards which then spread to the house.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: It only takes one ember drifting across a street to endanger homes.
Fire climbs uphill where we build our homes

Topography plays a role in helping wildfire spread rapidly. If neighbourhoods are located at the top of a slope, as is the case in Fort McMurray and northern California, they face additional risk. That’s because fire spreads faster uphill.

Today’s furniture is flammable

Ottawa Fire’s Peter McBride, Chief of Innovation and Safety, calls that couch or cushy chair you’re sitting on “comfortable gasoline.” Modern furniture is often made of synthetic, oil-based products that are highly flammable. It’s one of the reasons today’s house fires are considered more dangerous than in the past.

Watch the full story on Into the Fire.

Available on CBC Gem

Into the Fire

Nature of Things