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Fire fury in British Columbia, a natural phenomenon going wild with climate change!!

Dr Neelam Batra-Verma

Canadian wild fire: Sixteen-year-old Zack watched from the back seat of his car as his family fled the new fires engulfing the beautiful town of Kelowna, in British Columbia in Canada on the weekend. “My house is gone. The house me and my brother grew up in is no more,” he cried as tears rolled down his eyes.

He was among more than 36,000 residents who fled as the fast-moving wildfires reached their doorstep. Thousands of residents saw their homes, which they had built with tender love and care, go up in flames within minutes. More than 4000 commercial properties too are lost and counting. As West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund said on Friday “It was a devastating night; last night was probably the most challenging of my career. We fought hard last night to protect our community.” Fires in Kelowna started Thursday and by Friday, residents gathered whatever little possessions they could and fled in whatever means they could, as they watched their once picturesque town, which boasted of beautiful wineries and the Okanagan Lake, surrounded by provincial parks, orchards and mountains, being devoured by the mighty flames. A state of emergency has been declared in BC and premier David Eby has asked residents to avoid all non-essential travel to central and southeast BC, so that firefighters can travel freely.

Just two days back, residents of another town in the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife, had received evacuation orders and as many as 20,000 residents left their homes for safer place. Till the time of writing, 95% of the residents had fled while the mayor urged the rest 5% to leave urgently. Special flights were organized to transport residents to safer places as the fast-moving fires engulfed the city.

Fires have also been raging in Alberta and Quebec all summer. In Quebec fires from last year are still continuing. In June this year, lightening in Quebec started half of the fires and they are still burning. The other half is a result of human activity or accidental. According to reports, at present 27 million acres of land is burning in Canada. The previous record was 17.5 million acres burnt way back in 1995. In June this year, intense spate of while wildfires from Canada created a smoky haze on as far as New York, turning its skies to orange and suffocating residents as they masked up and were advised to stay indoors. Neither climate change nor the burning fires care about borders.

So why are so many fires burning in Canada? And why is it so difficult to put these fires out? Canada is a large country and almost half of its land is covered in forest, which is largely unhabituated land. Being inaccessible, the only way left to fight these fires is from the air. And if communities, infrastructure and natural resources are not threatened, those wildfires are left to burn out but with monitoring. Winds in those areas are strong, spreading to 50 meters or even more a minute. In those precarious situations, it is not worth risking the lives of the firefighters. This summer alone, BC has already lost two firefighters, while dousing flames in the province.

History has it that people have been experiencing smoky days since 1700s and Americans have seen fires since then. In a report Quinn Barber, a fire science analyst at the Canadian Forest Services in Alberta says, “Many of Canada’s fires are in the boreal forest, in remote areas north of the zone that contains the country’s biggest cities. Those forests are actually adapted to burn; they are evolved to burn, approximately every 100-200 years. Even if we could stop all the fires, it would be a profound mistake for the ecology of the forest, and would just lead to bigger fires down the road.”

What about climate change? Has man-made climate change worsened the condition? Many of the fires are a result of lightening and caused due to tinder dry conditions, caused due to lack of rains. As the rains become less predictable and more tropical storms are prevalent, scientists forecast fire conducive weather patterns could double or triple in Atlantic Canada by 2080.

According to the intergovernmental panel on Climate Change, human activity has increased the amount of green house gasses resulting in warming of the planet by 1 degree C above the pre-industrial levels in 2017. Warmer conditions result in drying of vegetation and grass creating fuel for fire; consequently, fires get more intense. The federal government has predicted that the burning of forests might double by 2050.  While the boreal fires will continue to burn, the only way to move forward is to reduce the use of coal, oil and gas and shift to renewable sources of energy like solar, hydro or wind to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Canadian wildfires are not just a Canadian problem anymore. The province had to import firefighters from other countries like Nigeria to help fight the fires as it does not have enough firefighters. In a global world, we are all in this together. WHO has termed climate change as the “biggest health threat facing humanity.” As a result of climate change, fires, intense heat, drought and even frequent floods affects global health causing deaths, displacement and infectious diseases. In BC, residents of Lytton, another city that was lost to the fires in 2021, are yet to return and start rebuilding two years later. While Canada fights wildfires, India, China, some parts of the US and other South Asian cities have been displaced due to torrential rains causing landslides and flooding. Once displaced by climate change and loosing life’s possessions and memories, rebuilding a new destiny and life’s tapestry, with scarce resources, can be depressing, painful and heart wrenching.

Global warming has been warning us for decades but we did not heed. The earth and ecology will not compromise with us. Instead, we need to compromise with each other. If we have to survive, we need to act now and save the earth for the next generation. It is the responsibility of this generation to keep the oceans blue and the forests green. Someone said it right – save earth today to survive tomorrow.

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