The Current

Expect more massive wildfires ahead for Canada, warns environment author

"There's one estimate that we are going to have 50 per cent more lightning in the boreal forest of Canada by mid-century than we do now."
A massive wildfire nicknamed "the beast" raged through Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2016. (RCMP Fort McMurray)

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In the spring of 2016, a wildfire so unpredictable and intense — fire chief Darby Allen referred to it as "the beast" — raged through Fort McMurray, Alta. 

The RCMP and other first responders did not realize the fire had entered town until they received photos from friends and relatives via email and smartphones. (RCMP Fort McMurray)

That fire is a foreshadowing of things to come, according to Edward Struzik.

The author of Fire Storm: How Wildfire will Shape our Future says it was a miracle so many survived the inferno.

"The RCMP, the emergency response people, all admitted they expected thousands of people to be dead. The RCMP was already trying to figure out where they were going to have the morgue," Struzik tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Increasingly, fires are burning so severely that they leave nothing in the ground to allow spruce and pine to recover, says Edward Struzik. Drought and dry, hot weather that sometimes follow don’t allow those seedlings that might take root to grow. (Ellen Whitman)

The summer of 2017 was officially the worst wildfire season in B.C history.  Megafires scorched hundreds of thousands of hectares in B.C. and also Alberta, forcing thousands to flee to safety. 

And Canada wasn't alone. Wildfires burned parts of Portugal, Spain and blackened California's wine country — leaving a path of destruction and dozens of deaths.

The 2014 fires that burned near Yellowknife and throughout the southwestern part of the Northwest Territories were among the most severe in recorded history. (Government of the Northwest Territories)
There's one estimate that we are going to have 50 per cent more lightning in the boreal forest of Canada by mid-century than we do now.- Edward Struzik

Struzik says we need to do more as we adapt to a future with bigger and more intense forest fires as climate change takes hold. He predicts more megafires as temperatures rise, winds get stronger and our forests become drier.

"The warmer it gets, the more lightning you are going to get. There's one estimate that we are going to have 50 per cent more lightning in the boreal forest of Canada by mid-century than we do now," Struzik explains.

These conditions have turned wildfires into a potentially uncontrollable threat to human lives and the places where we live, according to Struzik. 

Like many other animals, grizzly bears do well in landscapes that have been burned by fire. Biologist Gordon Stenhouse (L) deals with G-16, a small bear he captured first in 1999 and then again more than a decade later. (Edward Struzik)

Struzik paints an apocalyptic scenario where the town of Banff catches fire and town officials are ill-prepared to evacuate the tourist mecca.

 "You've got 35,000 people — tourists and residents — living in Banff and suddenly the trees and the fences  and some of the wood homes start catching fire. How do you get everybody out?"

Struzik says Canadian government officials have made some progress on preparing us for a future with more megafires, but much more needs to be done. 

Soot from wildfires in the Arctic is darkening the surface of glaciers, like this one in the Canadian Arctic, as it absorbs the sun’s heat and accelerates the melting that is already taking place. (Edward Struzik)

"We need to have better building codes so that we don't have houses that are built in the boreal forest with cedar shake shingles. We got to educate people and tell them, you know, mulch is just a great way of bringing a fire to your house," he tells Tremonti.

"And planting ornamental cedars along the side of your house is probably not a good idea."

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by Calgary network producer Michael O'Halloran.