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A few days ago Mike Flannigan travelled to Fort McMurray as part a special scientific research team studying the raging wildfire. He got a bird’s eye view from above and a close look at the ruins on the ground. With smoke still smouldering in the forests, not many people had come back, and yet nature had begun its nascent process of recovery and return. “It was kind of eerie to go around neighbourhoods," Flannigan tells National Observer. "Birds were building nests on front lawns. Wildlife was starting to take over."
Now Fort McMurray residents have begun the difficult journey home weeks after that terrifying day in May when an unprecedented inferno, fueled by unusually hot and dry spring weather, caused them to flee and led to the largest evacuation in Alberta’s history.
Those unusual weather conditions have been widely attributed to El Nino, a naturally-occurring phenomenon linked to warm ocean water that disrupts the weather.
But Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire from the University of Alberta, and many other climate change scientists agree that while the Fort McMurray fires cannot be directly linked to the carbon pollution produced by humans, Canadian wildfire activity of the past few years is well above average. And it's connected to the warming climate.
In terms of the total areas destroyed by fires, there's an unmistakable escalation, they say.
They see these fires as vivid markers of dangers to come for the forests and for the people and wildlife that live in them and around them.
As temperatures warm, they say, the likelihood is greater that more out of control infernos will consume more trees and human infrastructure.
“Climate change is here," Flannigan says. "And we’re seeing more fires and arguably more intense fires because of it. Our area burned in Canada has doubled since the seventies. I, and others, say that this increase in area burned is related to temperature, which is related to human caused climate change.”
Government assessment shows increased forest fire activity in last 40 years
Provincial officials had immediately deployed four air tankers and helicopters as part of a team of firefighters on Sunday May 1, soon after 4 p.m. local time when a patrol first spotted the flames in a very small area of forest near Fort McMurray.
Two hours later, the fire had grown by 30 times to about 60 hectares.
“It goes to show how hot and dry it has been here with no rain in the area for the last two months," Alberta government wildfire manager Chad Morrison told the media on May 7. "Any fire that starts can grow very quickly and move very fast.”
A week after it started, the wildfire had covered an area 200,000 hectares in size. As of today, it has consumed 600,000 hectares, the size of the state of Delaware, according to a Bloomberg report and it continues to burn.
The inferno leapt over rivers and whipped across highways before attacking Fort McMurray on May 3. More than 80,000 people abandoned their homes to seek safety.
It was so powerful it created its own weather, fierce and powerful winds and lightning emerged from the monster-sized blaze.
Flannigan has seen cases where forest fires generated their own thunderstorms, but he's never heard about a fire generating its own lightning that sparked a new blaze to grow and spread. That's a first, and he knows what he's talking about.
The prolific researcher has degrees in physics, atmospheric science and plant sciences, and he has published more than 100 research papers in peer-reviewed journals, including 30 papers related to forests and climate change.
Flannigan is also among a number of the scientists whose research was featured in a climate change assessment of Canadian forests published by the federal government’s Natural Resources Department in 2009.
The assessment highlighted a number of different peer-reviewed studies showing that forest fire activity has increased significantly over the last 40 years.
The numbers and facts show how rising temperatures are providing a dangerous cocktail of flammable ingredients. One study, quoted in the assessment, found that snow packs were melting one to four weeks earlier than they did 50 years ago in the United States. The U.S. wildfire season is also 78 days longer than it used to be.
And when a wildfire strikes in the U.S., it lasts an average of 37 days, up from 7.5 days, the government’s assessment said.
All in all, the frequency of large fire years and the area burned in the North American boreal region has more than doubled since the 1960s, with most of the activity occurring in the western part of the boreal forest.
The Fort McMurray wildfires are consistent with the trend, most climate scientists say.
Climate change doubters question whether there is any real pattern of connection since there have been some annual fluctuations in the amount of area burned. But statistics from the last three years suggest an alarming pattern.
About four million hectares of land have been affected by forest fires in Canada for the last three years. This is well above the average of about two million hectares over the past decade. It’s even larger than the average from the 1960s when about one million hectares of forest were burned every year in Canada from wildfires.
Research shows the wildfires will get worse, says Yan Boulanger
Taking a step back, over the last 2000 years, forest fire activity has actually been decreasing due to increases in summer precipitation, says Yan Boulanger, a Quebec-City based research scientist from the Canadian Forest Service.
But he said something different has been happening over the past 40 years.
“We can in fact say that the rise of temperature is now starting to counterbalance the trend in precipitation seen in previous decades,” Boulanger told National Observer. “Another thing that we can say is that most aggressive forcing scenarios are pushing fire activity by 2100 close or beyond what was observed during the past.”
It's no time for blame, say environmentalists
Most Canadian media have not reported extensively on the climate change connection to the Fort McMurray wildfires. The Financial Post printed stories questioning whether there was a trend, including a graph of annual statistics from the 1970s that they say suggest no pattern, due to the annual fluctuations from year-to-year.
The city of Fort McMurray is at the heart of Alberta's oilsands industry which hold the world's third largest reserves of crude, behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
The oilsands industry is the country's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and the government knows that the sector's rising carbon pollution must be capped if Canada is serious about meeting international commitments to reduce its climate-warming emissions.
So Fort McMurray comes up in all discussions about climate change in Canada.
For more than a decade, the oilsands industry has had a big target on its back from environmental groups, backed by climate scientists and governments from around the world who say that we must phase out fossil fuels and keep much of it in the ground to avoid more dangerous changes to the atmosphere.
But many environmental groups in Canada have been cautious about repeating this message, with regards to the oilsands, since the wildfires struck the oilsands hub.
The directors of ten major Canadian environmental groups, including Greenpeace Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation and Environmental Defence, waited a few days after the May 3 evacuation to collectively express their concerns, carefully drawing a link to the planet’s climate change crisis.
“This is not a time for blame. It is time to stand together and make sure the people are safe and well cared for,” the environmental leaders said in a joint statement.
They also said that rebuilding would eventually begin in Fort McMurray and that this would include taking steps to prevent this from happening to any other communities.
“We need to figure out how can we adapt our communities to deal with the risk of fires and we need to take action to reduce the risk of climate change,” the environmentalists said in their statement. “This is part of the rebuilding process and this is the responsibility of all Canadians.”
The federal government, at the same time, says it has been working on improving its national forest fire prevention strategy.
La Nina is coming
Looking at short-term trends, Kerry Anderson, an Edmonton-based research scientist and meteorologist from the CFS said that he and his colleagues had predicted a rough wildfire season in western Canada as early as March, due to the strong El Nino.
But the government experts anticipate the risks of extreme fires - in the current season - to diminish later this summer as El Nino gets replaced by La Nina, which generally brings colder and wetter weather to Canada, he said.
“The El Nino that we experienced is certainly collapsing,” Anderson said. “We’re into a neutral situation and it will likely evolve into a La Nina, probably in late June, early July.”
This won't mean wildfire activity will stop, he says, but it will likely reduce the severity of the conditions that kindle them.