Forest fires will become more widespread and destructive, expert warns


Published Tuesday, July 31, 2018 8:47AM EDT
Updated Monday, August 6, 2018 11:47AM EDT
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As hundreds of wildfires rage in Ontario and B.C., one expert is warning that the increased forest fire activity being experienced this year is about to become a regular feature of Canadian summers.

“The science is very clear,” Merritt Turetsky, an ecologist at the University of Guelph, told CTV’s Your Morning.

“Fires are now burning larger than they ever have before. They’re getting more intense than they have been in the past. This is only projected to get worse.”

There had been 888 forest fires reported year-to-date in Ontario as of Monday night – an increase of more than 70 per cent over the province’s 10 year average. According to Turetsky, Ontario has a “large fire year” every two decades or so, but was not due to have its next one for several years.

In B.C., 2017 smashed records for amount of land burned by wildfires and total cost of wildfires. Significant wildfire activity has also been reported outside Canada, in places such as Greece – where 91 people have died – Sweden and California.

Turetsky said conditions existed for severe, devastating fires in many areas around the world due to prolonged dry spells and heat waves. She described the increase in wildfire activity as a “direct outcome of climate change” and said the world’s governments need to take firm action to bring down emission levels.

Forest fires are typically considered a normal part of a strong ecosystem. They eliminate dead and rotting trees, allowing nutrients to return to the soil and healthier trees to take their place.

However, Turetsky said, the increase in forest fire activity and severity could lead to significant consequences for affected ecosystems.

She has studied boreal forests in Alaska and the Northwest Territories which burned in major wildfires. In both cases, the forest didn’t bounce back in the way researchers expected.

“Large areas there are simply not regrowing vegetation,” she said.

A lack of new growth leads to concerns for biodiversity. The barren land can also cause issues with landslides and soil erosion. Turetsky sees that as particularly concerning in Ontario and other parts of Canada where development is occurring closer to forests than in the past, leaving homes and farms in potential danger.

“It’s going to affect a lot of different aspects of living here in Ontario that I don’t think we’ve necessarily associated with wildfire in the past,” she said.

Turetsky would like to see more education around what she calls “fire-smart practices,” which include everything from developers thinking about how the areas they build in could be affected by forest fires to property owners getting rid of dead brush.

“Every homeowner needs to understand that fire can affect them,” she said.

Those impacts could extend to people returning to a home that survived a wildfire, as the sudden absence of tree cover on the property may cause concerns at ground level.

“When the trees have been removed, raindrops hit the ground at maximum speed and it can create a large-scale erosion,” Blair Feltmate of the University of Waterloo told The Canadian Press.

Drinking water could also be affected by forest fires. Experts say most municipal water systems in Canada are not set up in a way that would immediately alert authorities to forest fire-related contaminants in water supplies.

Natural Resources Canada has warned that climate change will lead to more forest fires taking place. It estimates that wildfires could claim twice as much of Canada’s boreal forest per year by 2100 as they do now.

Turetsky said Atlantic Canada may be able to escape the increase in forest fire activity relatively unscathed, as it typically receives enough rain to keep the dry, fire-sparking conditions at bay.

With files from The Canadian Press


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