Climate Change

Climate change turned Canada into tinderbox, doubled chances of extreme wildfires: Research

Fire weather like this can be expected to occur once every 25 years, meaning about a 4% chance every year

By Nandita Banerji
Published: Wednesday 23 August 2023
Montreal downtown in the smoke of Canadian forest fires on June 24, 2023. Photo: iStock__

The fire-friendly weather conditions behind the extreme fires in Canada’s Quebec province between May and July this year were stoked by human-caused climate change, according to a new analysis by the World Weather Attribution initiative. The likelihood of the weather conditions were doubled due to global warming, leading to the record fires witnessed in the North American region. 

On June 8, 2023, Down To Earth reported the effects of the fires in the eastern part of Canada spread to a large part of North America — Montreal, Toronto and New York were shrouded in heavy smog with significant health risks to tens of millions of residents in the United States and Canada. 

But the conditions got worse. By August, nearly 14 million hectares had already burned in the 2023 Canadian wildfire season. At least 17 people died as a result of the fires; more than 150,000 people were evacuated and at least 200 structures, including homes, were damaged. 

Read more: How to reverse global wildlife declines by 2050

Changes in fire weather are associated with an increase in temperature and a decrease in humidity, both of which are driven by human-induced warming. This year, Canada experienced its hottest May-June period since 1940, beating the previous record set in 1998 by a huge margin of 0.8 degrees Celsius. The effect was compounded by an unusually low precipitation. 

The study focused on Quebec, which recorded an exceptionally high number of wildfires in May and June. The researchers used the Fire Weather Index (FWI), a metric that combines temperature, windspeed, humidity and precipitation to estimate the risk of wildfire.

The seven-day maximum of the FWI over the region was studied to assess the peak intensity of the fire weather. The scientists concluded that such an event was twice as likely to occur and around 20 per cent more intense because of climate change

The intense fire weather was unprecedented, but no longer extremely unusual, the research said. Intense fire weather like this can be expected to occur once every 25 years, meaning that they have about a four to five per cent chance of occurring each year. 

Read more: How raging wildfires made mudslides in California more dangerous

The paper also warned of worse consequences as unabated emissions continue to raise the planet’s temperatures —  the likelihood and intensity of such fire seasons are projected to increase further in a 2°C warmer world, the study further said.

The paper also highlighted the extent, magnitude and location of the wildfires posed significant challenges for wildfire management, which was limited to disaster response and wildfire containment.

The wildfires also had disproportionate impacts on indigenous, fly-in and other remote communities who were particularly vulnerable due to lack of services and barriers to response interventions, it said, pointing to the need for changing fire management strategies and increasing resources

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