A brief reprieve from smoke-filled summers

I gave a sigh of relief when this summer ended with no significant wildfires. The past two summers have been filled with eye-watering, throat-choking smoke so thick you couldn’t see across the street.

Image: New York Times

We were spared this year and, instead, read about the miserable wildfires in Brazil. The Group of Seven leaders indignantly berated Brazilian President Bolsonaro for allowing the burning of the “lungs of the earth.” In a token gesture, the G7 offered a measly $20 million to fight the fires and to send in “multilateral green helmets” to save the day.

The hypocrisy is palpable: the seven wealthiest countries on Earth extract $20-million worth of resources from Brazil every minute; Canada’s mining industry alone holds more than $10-billion in Brazilian assets (Arno Kopecky, Globe and Mail, September 6, 2019.)

If we are going to start enlisting ecowarriors to save the planet’s trees in the name of fighting climate change, Canada had better prepare to be invaded too.

Canada has the second-largest intact forest on Earth after the Amazon. Our boreal forest is being logged at the rate of 400,000 hectares per year and most of it turned in to Kleenex and toilet paper to supply the United States.

However, logging is not the biggest threat to Canada’s boreal forest –wildfires are. A study done by the journal Ecosphere in 2018 predicts that Canada is headed for a fivefold increase in the area burned by forest fires by the year 2100.

Last year, 1.2 million hectares of our forest went up in smoke. A similar amount of forest burned the summer before. So far this year, wildfires have only burned two per cent of that.

B.C. isn’t out of the woods by a long shot. I’d rather think that we are back to wildfire-free summers but that’s a nostalgic dream of summers past.

What’s more likely is that the years between the devastating wildfires of 2003 and 2017 were an anomaly. It was in 2003 that I was evacuated from my home in Westsyde, Kamloops, because of a fire across the street and  when the residents of Barriere and Kelowna watched helplessly as their homes burned to the ground.

After the “summer of fire” in 2003, the BC government appointed former Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon to head a commission of inquiry. The commission’s February 2004 report warned of bigger fires in the future: “The wildfire zone is not only getting closer to people, but people are getting closer to the wildfire zone.”

Now forest-fire ecologist Robert Gray now says: “the problem is as big, or bigger than it was then, because, of course, the conditions continue to deteriorate. The areas that we thought were low to moderate hazard are probably high hazard now because, of course, that was all before the mountain pine beetle epidemic.”

Then there’s the impact of climate change says Gray “which is going to put more and more pressure on trees. They’re fighting for light and moisture and nutrients. This is just going to stress them out. We’re going to have mortality. And then we have forest fires and we go back and replant them in the high-density stands again. We are awash in fuel in BC.”

My relief at a wildfire-free summer this year is dampened by the prospects for next summer.