Climate Disruption and Wildfire

Page is Periodically Updated with New Information
Latest Update 8/6/19

Numerous studies over the past decades have projected dramatic changes in wildland fire related to climate change for various parts of the world. These studies have projected increases in: fire seasons length, occurrences of extreme fire weather, average annual area burned and the occurrence of extreme fire events (e.g., see Report 4 on the Ecosystem Vulnerability reports page of this website).
Over the past decade these projections have begun to be borne out with some very dramatic fire events in Canada, the Western US, Europe, Northern Asia and South America. Zeroing in on Southeast BC we had a number of large fires in 2003, including fires in Kelowna, Mount Ingersoll, Kutetl Creek, Kuskanook Creek and Lamb Creek, followed by the Springer Creek, Sitkum Creek, Hamill Creek and Pend d’ Oreille River fires in 2007, capped off by the Rock Creek blaze in 2016. Alberta has also had a few recent disasters, Slave Lake in 2011 Fort McMurray in 2016 and the High Level (Chuckegg Creek) fire in early 2019.

The record-breaking fire seasons in British Columbia during 2017 and 2018 are likely a taste of things to come (see figure below - data from BC Government sources). Note that the average area burned in the province steadily decreased from early in the 20th century to the end of that century. This has been consistent with an increase in summer precipitation and decrease in summer temperatures and increased firefighting efforts in the West Kootenays (see Report 4 as above). However, as climate disruption has begun to reverse the trends in summer temperatures and precipitation, the area burned has now begun to increase into the 21st century. An attribution study noted in the figure indicated what role climate change played in the 2017 fire season.

Impacts from wildfires are not only the direct impacts such as loss of homes, infrastructure, and timber, but also physical health impacts due to breathing wildfire smoke and mental health impacts due to displacement, loss of income and general distress. Then there are also the costs due to ecosystem disruptions and loss of forest habitats, impacts on aquatic ecosystems due to increased sedimentation and loss of streamside shading, all of which ultimately lead to a loss of ecosystem services to human communities. However, one of the most significant impacts is one that most people are unaware of - providing positive feedback to climate change by increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The graph in the figure below summarizes the role of forests in BC to greenhouse gas sequestration and emissions over the past few decades. The green bars below the 0 emissions line indicate the estimated mega-tonnes of CO2 that were sequestered by forests each year in BC. Note that the sequestration drops dramatically after the climate change-induced mountain pine beetle epidemic in the early 2000s. Forests are only just beginning to recover in the MPB areas; however, subsequently we are now loosing forests to other insects and disease and increased wildfires. The purple and yellow portions of the bars indicate the annual amounts of emissions directly linked to wood products manufactured from forest harvesting and slashburning respectively. The brown portions of the bars indicate the estimated annual emissions from wildfires. The red line indicates the net emissions from BC forests. It is important to note that prior to 2003, BC forests were sequestering more carbon than they were emitting, i.e. they were working to combat climate disruption. Since 2003, forests in BC are now net contributors to climate disruption. This is a perfect example of the positive feedbacks that we want to avoid. This is why it is imperative that we stop emitting GHGs as soon as possible. Once these positive feedbacks become global, we will no longer be able to control climate disruption, even if we do reduce emissions. For comparison, the direct human-caused emissions for BC are shown by the blue dashed line.

One of the ways we can minimize the negative impacts of wildfires is to reduce fuels in the forest. Fuel treatments will not reduce the incidence of fires, nor the area burned, but it can reduce fire intensity and the severity of impacts. Treatments can also provide opportunities to more effectively combat fires and protect specific structures or ecosystems when they do occur. The report below provides an in-depth summary of fuel treatments, how they have worked in other areas, and their applicability to forests in the Southern West Kootenay.
Fuel Treatments - West Kootenays
As part of a public consultation regarding potential fuel treatments in the Slocan Valley, Kutenai Nature Investigations provided a background presentation on climate change and its impact on wildfire in the West Kootenays. The PowerPoint presentation slides are available for download below.
Slocan CC & Wildfire pt 1
Slocan CC & Wildfire pt 2
Slocan CC & Wildfire pt 3
Additional presentations at a 2018 Wildfire and Climate Change Conference in Nelson, BC on climate change, wildfires and fuel treatments can be found at the following link:

Kootenay Wildfire Conference
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