Forest Fires & Climate Change: Burning Scientific Truths (Khan)


Anyone who has been paying attention to the news recently will have undoubtedly heard about the forest fire in Fort McMurry, Alberta. According to the CBC, the fire is estimated to have burned over 500,000 hectares and is still burning in some areas. The fire has also prompted the evacuation of close to 80,000 people in the area. There has been a major outpouring of support from around the country, and many people have been amazed by the sheer size of the blaze.

fire-mapPerimeter of the Fort McMurry fire as of May 24th 2016 (Source: Cbc)

This incident might make you wonder: what causes forest fires, and are they becoming more frequent?

Forest fires are like any other fire, in that they are dependent on three components to survive: a fuel source, a heat source or spark, and oxygen. According to Natural Resources Canada, there are thousands of fires across Canada each year, but only 3% of these grow to over 200 hectares in size. In the case of larger fires like the one in Alberta, conditions such as high temperatures and lack of precipitation have a huge impact on the spread of the fire. According to the Global and Mail, it is a combination of these factors that have allowed the Alberta fire to survive. Another important factor in the growth of fires is the direction and speed of the wind. Winds can often hamper efforts to stop a forest fire.

Once a fire has started, it is important to limit its growth and minimize the damage. One way to fight a forest fire is to douse the fire with ammonium polyphosphate. This complicated sounding chemical functions by creating a layer over flammable material and insulating it from the high temperatures of a fire. This lowers the temperature that the fire burns at, and reduces the fuel available for the fire to burn. In addition to this method, firefighters in Alberta are creating firebreaks to stop the forest fire. A firebreak is a clearing in combustible materials in the path of a fire.


A plane dousing a California Wildfire with ammonium polyphosphate (Elaine Thompson/AP)

A fact to keep in mind is that Canada has almost 10% of the world’s forest areas so forest fires are a common issue. Forest fires are often thought of as natural calamities when they impact humans, but that does not mean that they are necessarily bad for the environment. Fires clear out old trees and bushes and allow for new trees to grow out. In fact, Natural Resources Canada often sets a number of prescribed fires each year to allow healthy growth of forest ecosystems.

So are forest fires becoming more frequent? And is it a result of climate change?

Not exactly, fires today are not more frequent, but frequently more destructive. According to Natural Resource Canada, in 2014 the number of fires across Canada were down, but the area burned by fires across Canada had increased. Kerry Anderson, a fire research assistant with Natural Resource Canada says that more data needs to be collected and analyzed before a definitive link can be made between climate change and forest fires. What is known however is that climate change contributes to forest fires in two important ways:

  • Climate change has caused an increase in global temperatures and has disrupted the usual precipitation patterns. This has lead to increasingly hot and dry conditions which are more conducive to forest fires.

The government and local communities need to do more to protect citizens from the danger of forest fires. A FireSmart plan developed in response to the Slave Lake fire in 2011 has not been fully implemented by communities across Alberta; this plan needs to be reviewed to plan for future incidents. We are today in an era where climate change is finally being recognized as an important issue, but we need to work on adapting to a changing world in addition to trying to reduce emissions and limit climate change.


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