US and Canada on red alert as fire season gets off to devastating start

Large areas of North America a tinderbox after record-breaking heatwave

The Sugar Fire, part of the Beckwourth Complex Fire, burns in Doyle, Calif. , on Saturday, July 10, 2021.  (AP Photo / Noah Berger)
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Firefighters across the western US and Canada are bracing for what could be the worst wildfire season on record.

A deadly, record-breaking heatwave has left the drought-stricken region with tinderbox conditions, exacerbated by years of poor wildland management.

More than 300 wildfires are blazing across British Columbia alone, while about 121,000 hectares have burned across six states in the western US, and officials predict the worst is yet to come.

“Last year was very destructive and this year we’re expecting another very active fire season,” said US Forest Service spokesman Stanton Florea.

Mr Florea said the traditional season has grown so long, officials now simply called it “fire year”.

In Lytton, British Columbia, where temperatures set a new Canadian record of 49.6°C last month, at least two people were killed when a fire burnt through the community soon after.

Across the border, in Washington and Oregon, hundreds have died after a heatwave in the Pacific North-west, while in Death Valley, temperatures hit 54°C, just shy of a historical record.

The climate crisis, a years-long drought and the relentless development of homes in areas abutting wildlands have left experts and officials dreading the rest of the summer.

“We didn't need a crystal ball to see this coming,” said Jennifer Balch, a geography professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who specialises in fire ecology. “We expected this.”

As deadly as 2020 was, with 58,950 wildfires burning more than 4 million hectares, experts say this year could be worse.

A lack of rain is a main reason wildfires are so widespread, with more than 83 per cent of the west now locked in a devastating drought.

“This is the most exceptional drought we've ever shown on the map in the western US,” said Brian Fuchs, a climate scientist who creates weather charts for the US Drought Monitor.

“Droughts like this really amplify the fire season.”

The Hoover Dam reservoir, the largest in the US, is at an all-time low, while harsh drought conditions persist in Canada, where the environment agency is forecasting “well above average wildfire severity” in some regions.

Long-standing fire-suppression policies have also played a major role in the intensity and spread of the wildfires.

“Our land management practices, including fire suppression during calmer weather conditions, has created a massive accumulation of fuel and forest and rangeland conditions that are not resistant or resilient to wildfire,” said John Bailey, a wildfire expert at Oregon State University.

For the past century, the western US has tried to quell as many fires as possible, resulting in vast areas of dry vegetation.

Historically, Native American communities would use burning as a land-management technique to thin out flammable vegetation.

In northern California, firefighters are already struggling to contain an explosive wildfire along the Nevada border.

The Beckwourth Complex Fire, which has already engulfed almost 35,000ha and destroyed homes, shows no sign of slowing. It doubled in size over the weekend.

Another driver of the endless wildfire season is where people choose to live.

A 2018 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science estimated one in three US homes were now in forested areas, meaning a heightened risk of fires being started accidentally, while controlled burns near residential areas are harder to conduct.

“Wildfire problems will not abate if recent housing growth trends continue,” it said.

With the parched landscape a disaster waiting to happen, officials put extra resources into educating the public about fire safety, 95 per cent of which are caused by humans.

“We conduct training year-round,” said Christine McMorrow of Cal Fire, California’s state fire department.

“We have to increase education efforts to residents about defensible space, home fire safety, and evacuation preparation.”

Evacuation is of prime concern to authorities, who are well aware of the dangers posed by human populations living too close to forests in today’s fraught climate conditions.

In 2018, a blaze ripped through a town north of Sacramento, California, trapping the residents of Paradise, and killing 85 people.

“Although there’s a variety of causes for fires, most were driven by offshore winds, which cause an extreme spread. That’s essentially how they spread so quickly.”

Once a fire starts, it is difficult to contain. Mr Florea stressed the importance of creating “defensible space” around homes to avoid a repeat of the Paradise tragedy.

He said communities that become more adapted to fires have a better chance of preventing destruction. In 2020, wildfire damage totalled $16.5 billion.

But it is federal land management practices, rather than local communities and homeowners, that have played a large part in the ferocity and scale of the fires.

The Forest Service has recently been trying to rectify this but at the moment it is a case of too little, too late.

“We are making progress and building momentum, but there is a huge backlog of work to be done and many barriers to overcome to be operating at the pace and scale needed to conserve our forests and rangelands,” Mr Bailey said.

Further compounding the wildfire crisis is a shortage of firefighters in the region.

Updated: July 13, 2021, 3:06 PM