BC Wildfires in the Context of Climate Change

By Robin Hadac

Robin has been SPEC’s outreach facilitator since January. She wrote this piece for her course on climate change.

From the Elephant Hill Fire in the Ashcroft/Cache Creek area. Photo by Chris Gooderham. Be sure to check out the rest of the photos at the end of the blog piece. 

One summer evening this July, I walked to Kits Beach to watch the sunset. The sky was lit up an unusually dark orange, with a noticeable haze in the horizon. Little did I know, that evening would only be the beginning of a long reign of smoke and haze clouding the lower mainland. The 2017 fire season had started in BC, and it was going to be one of the worst ones in BC history.

Like many other areas of the world, BC has a historical pattern of summer fires. However, fire seasons in recent years have been more severe. The summer of 2015, a notable fire year for BC, had 1,858 total fires with 280,000 hectares (Ha) burned. More recently, 2017 had a record-breaking amount of land burned with significant impact to human lives. Since April 2017 to September 2017, 1,282 fires were reported, with 1,212,000 Ha. (12,120 sq km) burned across BC. For comparison, that is over four times the size of Metro Vancouver, and almost half the size of the lower mainland. 

Air quality was one of the most widespread effects to humans this season, even in areas far away from active fires. On an Air Quality Index out of 10, certain parts of BC received “very high risk” air quality scores of 18 and even as high as 36.

Forest fires and other disturbances are normally part of a healthy ecosystem. Fires can stimulate new growth by opening up the canopy to sunlight, release valuable nutrients stored in the forest floor, and allow certain tree species to reproduce by opening up cones (Natural Resources Canada, 2016). However, there is clear evidence to suggest that climate change is impacting BC’s forests, affecting fire probability and severity.

Climate change is resulting in an increase in average global temperatures. While there is variation in temperature differences and effects depending on location, BC on average is experiencing warmer weather, hotter temperatures, and more water vapor in the air. You can see more of the ways climate change has affected BC here.

This can mean more precipitation, which might boost plant growth and be beneficial for some forests. However, warming climates are altering the seasonality of rainfall. Most precipitation is falling in the fall and winter, leaving summer to be hot and dry. Glaciers are also melting earlier, contributing to earlier run-offs and drier summers (The Climate Examiner, 2017).

When water stocks are decreasing faster than usual, the resulting droughts and drier summers can impact a forest’s health and make trees vulnerable to insects and pathogens. When forests and foliage die, it increases the amount of fuel for burning and the probability of fires. (van der Kamp, 2016Natural Resources Canada 2017).

With conditions dry and prime for fires, there just needs to be a spark. Studies show that the probability of lightning, which on average is responsible for 61% of BC fires, increases by 12% per each degree Celsius of warming.

But the cycle does not end there; the increase in forest fires creates an amplifying feedback loop. As climate change increases rate and intensity of fires, the CO2 emissions given off from forest fires further contributes to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

While official reports will not be available until next year, it is estimated that the 2017 fires emitted 190 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That is almost triple BC’s annual carbon footprint. In addition, data from the last 25 years suggests that fire emissions are only increasing. Between 2003 and 2012, 271 million tonnes of CO2 were emitted from forest fires over the 10 year span. Compare this to the previous 10 years (1993-2002), where only 41 million tonnes of CO2 were emitted (Wieting, 2015).

In conclusion, the mechanisms by which climate change affects forest fire intensity and probability rate include many factors, but can be simplified as follows; temperatures are increasing, altering precipitation levels available for growth and increasing fire fuels. Those fires then release greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere, creating a feedback loop and exacerbating the issue. As Natural Resources Canada puts it, “One thing is clear: the future will not be like the past.”

The logging road to Chris’s cabin. “It used to be 14ft wide, but BC Wildfire team used it as a firebreak and now its 25ft wide road with another 25ft of clearcut.”

“Putting out a fire deep underground where 2 logs continued to burn, they happen to extend under our driveway.”

A trail that used to be extremely lush.


All photos are from SPEC Board member Chris Gooderham.

BC Wildfire Service. (2017). Current Statistics. Retrieved from http://bcfireinfo.for.gov.bc.ca/hprScripts/WildfireNews/Statistics.asp

Carman, T. (2017, Jul 29). Area of B.C. burned by wildfires at a 56-year high. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/area-of-b-c-burned-by-wildfires-at-a-56-year-high-1.4226227

Desmog Canada. (2017). Overview of Forest Fires in British Columbia. https://doi.org/10.1029/2004GL020876

Elledge, J. (2016, May 26). Where are the world’s largest cities? Retrieved from http://www.citymetric.com/fabric/where-are-worlds-largest-cities-2131

Hernandez, J. (2017, Aug 24). “It”s alarming’: Wildfire emissions grow to triple B.C.’s annual carbon footprint. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/it-s-alarming-wildfire-emissions-grow-to-triple-b-c-s-annual-carbon-footprint-1.4259306

Johnson, L. (2017, Aug 2). Health risk from smoky skies off the charts in parts of B.C. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/smoke-bc-august-2-wildfires-1.4232156

Little, S., & Yuzda, L. (2017, Aug 16). 2017 officially B.C.’s worst ever wildfire season. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/3675434/2017-officially-b-c-s-worst-ever-wildfire-season/

National Resource Canada. (2017, May 10). Impacts. Retrieved from http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/forests/climate-change/impacts/13095

Natural Resources Canada. (2016, May 20). Why forests need fires, insects and diseases. Retrieved October 2, 2017, from http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/forests/fire-insects-disturbances/forest-need/13081

Province of British Columbia. (2017). Wildfire Averages. Retrieved from http://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/wildfire-status/wildfire-statistics/wildfire-averages

Suzuki, D. (2017, Aug 17). Wildfires are a climate change wake-up call. Retrieved from http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/science-matters/2017/08/wildfires-are-a-climate-change-wake-up-call/

The Climate Examiner. (2017, Jul 20). BC wildfires caused in part by and contributing to climate change. Retrieved from http://theclimateexaminer.ca/2017/07/20/bc-wildfires-caused-part-contributing-climate-change/

van der Kamp, D., & Metro Vancouver. (2016). Drought, wildfire, and climate change in Metro Vancouver’s water supply area. Metro Vancouver. Retrieved from https://sustain.ubc.ca/sites/sustain.ubc.ca/files/Sustainability%20Scholars/2016%20Sustainability%20Scholars/Project%20Reports/Drought%2C%20Wildfire%2C%20and%20Climate%20Change%20in%20Metro%20Vancouver%27s%20Water%20Supply%20Area_van%20der%20Kamp_2016.pdf

Wieting, J. (2015). B.C. Forest Wake-Up Call: Heavy Carbon Losses Hit 10 Year Mark. Sierra Club BC, (June)