Climate change a big factor in persistent wildfires: Professor

University of Alberta professor Mike Flannigan says climate change and a warming northern temperature are playing a role in this year's widespread fires.

Wildland fire expert says decreased rains are due to 'lazy jetstream'

A crew on a government of Saskatchewan plane captured this image of a wildfire in the northern part of Saskatchewan. (Government of Saskatchewan)

According to an expert on wildland fires, Saskatchewan's smoky skies and persistent blazes can be largely attributed to climate change. 

Mike Flannigan is a professor in the department of renewable resources at the University of Alberta. 

A former weather forecaster with Environment Canada, Flannigan says climate change is contributing to a lazy jet stream, effectively decreasing the energy needed to create rain and wet conditions.

"Normally, a low pressure system comes through every three to five days, giving us rain and keeping the fire problem in check," he said. 

What's supposed to be "a strong band of wind that carries a low and high pressure system," with two different spheres of temperature that create high energy, is more like a lazy, "meandering river," he said. 

That's happening because of climate change.

"As the earth warms, northern areas are warming faster than the equatorial [southern] areas. So the difference between the temperatures is less [between north and south areas].

"Jet stream energy from temperature difference is weaker," Flannigan explained.

Less energy means fewer opportunities for sustained rain and showers, and that contributes to dryer conditions, he said. 

That, combined with two other factors — fuel and ignition — have turned out to be the trifecta for this year's fires. 

The province's boreal forest, trees, shrubs and many dried out twigs and pine needles all act as the fuel; frequent lightning strikes act as the ignition. 

Forests fires were close to the airport in La Ronge, Sask., on July 4 and July 5. Local leaders and the provincial government have ordered the evacuation of some 7,900 people from the area. (Prince Albert Fire Department)

Looking to the future, Flannigan said he expects the current trend to continue. 

"If the studies we've done are any reflection of the truth, then yes, we can expect longer fire seasons, earlier fire seasons, burning longer into the fall." 

"Not every year. Some years we'll be cool and wet, but we'll have years like this that become more frequent in the future, and it's because we have warmer temperatures," he said.