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Canada's 'unprecedented' fire season linked to climate change, will be the new normal: scientists

The fury of wildfires is being seen and felt from coast to coast to coast. 

At the moment, wildfires are burning across six provinces and one territory in Canada — and they’re still spreading in what’s being called an unprecedented fire season.

While firefighters work tirelessly to battle the merciless flames and prevent further destruction, scientists say the wildfires are linked to climate change and that this will be the new normal.

“Across the world and by almost any metric that we look at, wildfires are growing worse,” Kristina Dahl, principal climate scientist for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told CTV News.

“They are burning larger areas, they're burning more severely, they're burning over a longer fire season in mountainous regions, they’re burning at higher elevations where it's typically cooler as well.”

Though the factors may vary from place to place around the world, Dahl said there are some common threads for such destructive wildfires — climate change being one of them.

“Climate change has been implicated in worsening wildfires across North America,” she said.

“We also know that there are a lot more people living in wildfire-prone areas. And so that means that there are more people to potentially spark fires and more people affected when the fires do occur.”

At a news conference Thursday, federal ministers said there are currently 211 wildfires burning in the country — 82 of which are burning out of control — and that climate change is the culprit.

“It is a simple fact that Canada is experiencing the impacts of climate change, including more frequent and more extreme wildfires,” said Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.

“And the amount of forests burned by wildfire is projected to double by 2050 due to our changing climate, causing longer and more intense wildfire seasons, more extreme weather conditions and increased drought.”

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair called the conditions being reported this early in the fire season “unprecedented.” So far, more than 1,800 fires have broken out across the country this year, burning approximately 2.7 million hectares.

“To put that in some context, that’s over five million football fields,” Blair said.

“And the national average for hectares burned in the month of May over the last 10 years has averaged approximately 150,000 hectares, and so 2.7 million, I think, reflects how incredibly challenging this season has been.”

Dave Phillips, a senior climatologist at Environment Canada, said there are three phenomena that are “truly connected” to climate change — rising sea levels, heat waves and forest fires.

He said high temperatures, which are typically not seen until the summer months, are causing dry conditions and allowing forest fires to break out and some “very erratic” winds are causing the fires to spread.

In the case of Atlantic Canada, Phillips said the millions of trees brought down by Hurricane Fiona last year have had several months to dry out, creating the perfect storm.

“It was like a proper region of kindling wood,” he said in an interview with CTV News.

“Canada this year is really almost … a tinderbox in a lot of areas.”

The Shaw fire is shown in this recent handout photo. The Shaw Fire has burned more than 1,331 square kilometres in northwest Saskatchewan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency

Some 28,000 people have already been forced to evacuate from their homes across Canada. The fires are disproportionately impacting indigenous communities, such as Fort Chipewyan, but they have also surrounded urban areas.

Nearly 1,000 firefighters from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand are in the country helping to fight the fires, with crews from South Africa arriving soon. The Canadian Armed Forces are on the ground in Alberta and on their way to Nova Scotia.

“I think we’re literally in a battle for our lives and for our properties and for our homes,” Shaun Hatfield, an evacuee in Nova Scotia, said in an interview with CTV News.

Dahl offered one solution for preventing wildfires moving forward — “radically” reducing the amount of human development in wildfire-prone areas.

“That should reduce the human ignitions of wildfire and the fact that people spark most wildfires,” she explained.

“Unfortunately, it won't change the fact that we are warming and drying our climate and so making our wildfire prone areas even more (of a) fire problem.”

Meanwhile, Phillips said people should be “much more vigilant” by making sure to put out campfires and avoid starting fires in places where fire bans are in place.

“We need to care about our forested areas,” he said.

For much of Canada, hot and dry weather is forecasted throughout June. And with a hotter and drier summer than normal expected ahead, Phillips said the full scope of the fire season has yet to be seen.

“We have just started the season. And if this is the opening act, then boy, we're going to see a very, very hot and flamey kind of summer ahead.” Top Stories

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