While Canada’s politicians fiddle about on the barbecue circuit this summer, the country burns.
By Monday afternoon, 5,041 wildland fires had scorched 3.02 million hectares, equal to about half the area of Nova Scotia, and 902 of them were still burning.
Air tanker companies are logging twice the normal total of flying hours. Ground crews are being taxed to the maximum, and new recruits have already landed or are arriving from New Zealand, New Brunswick, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Mexico and the United States.
The intensity of this fire season should prompt a thoughtful, tangible response from provincial and federal governments. It should force Canadian politicians to deal more directly with an obvious and worsening symptom of climate change. The issue is certainly in the wheelhouse of the fledgling Alberta government, and when the NDP MLAs get back to business in the fall, it’s incumbent upon Premier Rachel Notley and her crew to take action on the environment, something they promised during the election campaign.
“We will take leadership on the issue of climate change and make sure Alberta is part of crafting solutions with stakeholders, other provinces and the federal government,” the party said in its platform document.
Their acknowledged first step was taken in late June, when they announced a phased-in doubling of the carbon levy by 2017 and more stringent emissions targets for large industrial emitters.
The levy was introduced in 2008 by the PCs and has contributed $578 million to a technology fund that provides capital for emissions reduction enterprises.
More initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases are needed and should be identified by the committee reviewing the province’s climate change policy. Chaired by University of Alberta energy policy professor Andrew Leach, that committee will consult with the public and industry before producing a proposal that the NDP can take to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which runs Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 in Paris.
This hellacious fire season will be over by then, but not forgotten.
While it’s true that wildland fires are a necessary, natural element of the life cycle of a boreal forest, the process has been adversely influenced by humans on at least three connected fronts: encroachment, global warming and fire suppression.
Humans cause climate change, and the warming of the planet’s air has indeed sparked more and more intense fires this season. The staggering total of 3.02 million hectares burned is more than double the 10-, 15- and 20-year averages and triple the 25-year average.
It could be merely a deviation, but researchers think otherwise; that incidence and intensity is trending upward.
As that happens, residential development spreads ever outward and entire housing subdivisions are built on the fringes of forested land. Those homes and the people in them are susceptible to wildfire, a fact that provokes suppression efforts in areas that might otherwise be left aflame, to burn off stockpiles of forest fuels like needles, branches and small logs. Instead, the fuel supply mounts and so does the intensity of the next wildfire when it inevitably ignites.
When settlements are threatened by wildfire, all levels of government place human life at the top of their priority lists, and rightly so.
Those governments must take a more proactive role in mitigating the underlying causes of wildland fires, manage the forests accordingly and do what they can to reverse an alarming trend.