Sask. should expect more fire activity in the future: expert

Northern Sask. residents and business owners have faced an unpredictable, volatile fire season. One expert says this will become the new normal as human-caused climate change contributes to longer, more intense fire seasons moving forward.

Northern forests need fire, but not too much of it

A waterbomber flies over a wildfire burning near La Ronge, Sask. (Don Somers/CBC)

Raging forest fires during a hot, dry summer have put many in Saskatchewan's northeastern communities on edge, including canoe outfitter Ric Driediger. 

"Where is a safe place to send people when fires are popping up all over the place?" Driediger asked.

He and his staff guide paddling trips and advise other trippers on where to go in northern Sask. 

"'Is it even safe to send people out at all?' is the question that I've been asking myself."

Saskatchewan has had 544 fires this year, shooting past the five-year average.  A total of 1,019,819.3 hectares have burned as of Tuesday, according to data from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC). The centre reported 42,072 hectares total burned last year in the province. 

Driediger has spent five decades in the Missinipe, Sask., area, where he operates Churchill River Canoe Outfitters. He's seen the weather grow more extreme during his time there. The relentless fire and smoke of 2021 is just one example. Last year, it was wicked rains. He said the wind has also been wreaking noticeably more havoc, bringing down trees across portage trails. 

One of the biggest challenges for Driediger is that he has no way of preparing for what's to come next year. The once-familiar weather patterns have turned unpredictable. 

More fire expected in the future

Recent rains have calmed some of the fires in the north, but wildfire expert Mike Flannigan said Saskatchewanians should get used to the smoke and fire seen this year, due to human-caused climate change. 

"It's not going to go away," said Flannigan, a wildfire expert with Thompson Rivers University. 

As climate change warms the globe, the weather conditions have become increasingly hotter, drier and windier. This has lead to more intense fire seasons that are starting earlier than normal. 

Warmer temperatures also lead to more lightning strikes, which hits tinder-dry forests like a match. The heat also helps the atmosphere become more efficient in drawing moisture out of vegetation, making it easier for forests to burn, Flannigan said. The drier the vegetation, the more fuel for fire. 

The point of no regeneration 

Fire is a natural part of Saskatchewan's northern forests, but there could come a time where there is too much fire. The flames traditionally help the forest thrive. For example, mature trees like jack pines need to be engulfed in high-intensity fires so their seeds can be released. 

"It's Mother Nature at work. It cleanses the forest, it kills bugs, disease. It's a cycle of life," Flannigan said. 

However, he said fires are supposed to work through areas in decades-long cycles. Flannigan said trees are resilient, but if the fire becomes too frequent in one area they won't survive. 

"If we keep on getting more and more fire, regeneration will fail and something other than forest will fill the void," he said. "What will replace it will be shrubs or grass — and grass can burn every year, so fire is not going to go away. The forest eventually might." 

He said that if this happens, humans would be to blame for not addressing climate change. 

"We're changing the path forward."

A wildfire burns near Highway 155 north of Buffalo Narrows, Sask. (Marvin Lemaigre/Facebook)

Flannigan said that as fire activity increases, directing resources to protect and support communities during fires is critical, as is managing the fuel and dry vegetation around them at the start of the season. He said past attempts to control wildfires that don't pose a threat to people or communities have worsened the problem and lead to more fire activity later. 

Global action on climate change is needed to meaningfully reign back the fire seasons, he said. 

Driediger said it's not too late to make changes to help mitigate climate change — but people need to start now.

"It bothers me that people kind of say 'it's coming, it's coming, it's coming.' No, it's here now." 

with files from Saskatoon Morning, Leisha Grebinski