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Wildfires in Canada, The Complexity of the Mess We Make

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I’ve recently returned from a small conference in Mexico. It concerned the state of the coastal ocean. I listened to the same discussions of the same problems that have featured at such conferences for decades.  We are overfishing. Our coastal development has negative consequences. We are polluting the coastal ocean with nutrients, sediments, and noxious, often lab-built, novel chemicals that many marine organisms cannot deal with. We need stronger laws. We need to engage the people in environmental decisions. And so on.

Cancun, México – not the best, nor the worst example of tourism in the coastal tropics of the world.  Tourism generates jobs and income but it also brings a host of problems for environmental sustainability and few tropical countries have been doing a good job of managing these problems.

What got distinctly uncomfortable was when young people asked me what they could do about these problems, as if I was an expert who should have some solutions – I don’t have any new answers, and few communities have paid much attention to all the old answers.

In contrast to the now very old problems typical of tropical coasts in tourist destinations, we are seeing lots of new problems as the climate changes. Back home in Canada we are still in the midst of the worst wildfire season on record.  Fortunately, not here in Muskoka, but in many places from west coast to east and in the far north, fires are still burning out of control and that situation is likely to continue until after the first snow flies. 

By 5th September 2023, wildfires had already burned 16.5 million hectares of land, a total area greater than that of Greece (or Bangladesh, Tunisia, or Honduras). This year’s total, not final yet, is already more than double the previous record set in 1989 and over six times the average area burned over the last several decades. To say this year is proving exceptional is an understatement. And nobody with any understanding of the situation thinks that this is a one-off and we will be back to ‘normal’ next year.

Managing a planned backburn to control the Ross Moore Lake fire in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, in July 2023. Photo © Jesse Winter/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

There is a need for more effective fire management than has been practiced until now; that will take money and training and additional people employed.  In a few years’ time, perhaps young people will be asking wildfire experts what can be done, and perhaps those experts will be as lost as I am concerning the coastal problems. Because I bet we will be talking about the need to deal with higher frequency and higher intensity fires for a long time before we actually start to make changes.

On 3rd August, the EU’s Copernicus Climate Service published a chart showing the horrifying extent of the CO2 emissions that results from all that burning across Canada. Need I point out that the likelihood of a fire season this serious has been heightened (one estimate says twice as likely) by climate change? Yes, yet again, we are responsible for this mess, even if you think of wildfire as ‘wild’.

Cumulative carbon emissions from Canada’s 2023 wildfires up to 1 August 2023. 
Off the charts! Image © Copernicus.

This fire season is likely the first of a series of such ‘record’ seasons, a new ‘normal’ on our slow path into the Anthropocene.  And it has immense consequences for Canada.

When the fire regime is changed for a forest, the forest changes too. When fires become more frequent, tree species that are better adapted to fire become more common as less tolerant species become less abundant. Greater fire frequency also changes the age structure of a forest towards younger trees.

Canada’s wildfires are also becoming larger and hotter. Such changes in the nature of fires change which tree species survive to replenish the forest.  Seeds of fire-resistant species will be favored, and lighter, more readily transportable seeds are more likely to replenish the large open patches created by larger fires. Such changes are already evident across Canada’s vast boreal forest – tracts that were formerly made up of coniferous species such as black spruce or white pine are becoming more open, dominated by aspen, birch and grasses.

We can anticipate these changes clear across Canada (and in much of the rest of the world).  All that land being managed for sustainable forestry? Back to the drawing board on that soothing idea.

But the impacts go well beyond likely changes to the value of Canada’s forestry industry. Canada’s plans for climate change mitigation and adaptation just got upended as well.

To understand this we have to delve into the relationship between forests and carbon. Put simply, forest growth removes CO2 from the atmosphere and sequesters it in the wood and the soil. Harvesting timber from a forest uses energy, releasing CO2 to the atmosphere (forestry is an energy-intensive industry).  The timber may store its carbon for many years, or may be burned, releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere. Finally, if a forest is burnt, the fire releases CO2 into the atmosphere, but opens land for regrowth, which removes CO2 from the atmosphere.

The United Nations recognized early on the complexity of accounting for the carbon fluxes in forests, but it also muddied the waters by supposing there is a difference between emissions due to human activities (forestry) and emissions due to natural causes, such as wildfires. It created a poorly defined concept of ‘managed forests’ and decreed that only anthropogenic emissions in managed forests were important in looking at a nation’s performance in the fight to contain climate change.

Canada recognized that its very extensive forests could be a net sequester of carbon or a net source of emissions and has a very broad definition of what it calls managed forests. And while Canada largely followed the UN rules for calculating anthropogenic carbon fluxes from forests, it introduced a few interesting procedures that have been widely criticized as massively masking the true emissions due to the forest industry.  One of the most important of Canada’s sleights-of-hand was the decision that when a wildfire results in massive emissions of CO2 that is a natural phenomenon and off the books as far as calculations of anthropogenic emissions are concerned. But once the fire is out, the regrowth sequesters lots of new carbon, and that regrowth carbon is counted as anthropogenic, because the regrowth is part of what forestry does – it regrows forests that have been cleared, whether by logging or by wildfire. This is of course nonsense bookkeeping.

In fact, even with its peculiar accounting procedures, Canada reported for 2019 that its vast forests were not the hoped for sink, but a modest net source of 5 megatonnes of carbon emissions – 134 megatonnes of Carbon sequestered versus 139 megatonnes of emissions, in a total national budget of about 700 net megatonnes carbon emitted. And that pattern has held more or less for most of the past two decades.

The is some evidence that Canadian forestry practice is promoting severe wildfires because of the extent to which forests are opened up by logging roads and the amount of waste timber left on site and providing potential fuel. And there are also substantial levels of uncertainty in the calculations of sequestration and emission.  An unkind description is that Canada’s reporting of the net emissions of its forest industry – a mere 5 megatonnes carbon – is a fanciful papering over of a more substantial piece of carbon pollution.

Now we add in the unprecedented fires this year, which Canada will claim to be ‘natural’, not part of the anthropogenic budget, and it is clear that the way our forests are being managed for forestry is becoming a major contributor to climate change, whether or not Canada can get away with pretending that the fires and the carbon they emit are not really anything to do with us.

So, next time you hear a politician talk about how Canada will get to net zero by 2050, just remember that ‘net zero’ may be quite a long way away from your imagined green and leafy Canada emitting no more carbon to the atmosphere per year than our trees can suck out of the air in that year. A long way away, in the direction of putting more CO2 into the atmosphere.  Do you still think it will be easy to bring warming to a halt before the world gets too warm?