The 2023 wildfire season became the worst on record in early July. Tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes, and smoke is affecting the health of millions of people throughout Canada, even in Northwest Territories and northern Quebec.
The science that links fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) to climate change and climate change to wildfires is clear. But public discourse is not. We’ve heard everything from legitimate questions to dubious conspiracy theories about this summer’s hot topic, so we’re here to clear things up.
What’s the link between climate change and forest fires?
Climate change can also lead to longer fire seasons. Warmer temperatures mean that snow melts earlier in the season, giving vegetation a longer period to dry out and creating more opportunities for fires to ignite and spread.
What’s the link between fossil fuels and forest fires?
The link between fossil fuels and forest fires is indirect but significant. Burning coal, oil and gas releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These GHGs trap heat from the sun, causing the global temperature to rise and creating more extreme and destructive weather and storms.
Burning more fossil fuels emits more GHGs, which intensifies climate change and increases the length and severity of the hot and dry summer conditions that are optimal for forest fires.
If human activities and lightning start wildfires, why do scientists cite climate change as the overall cause?
Forest fires can be caused by humans or lightning strikes, but climate change is at the root of what is making this fire season more severe. Here’s how it works:
Consider how quick it is to start a bonfire with tinder-dry wood and how much coaxing it takes to get one going when the wood is even slightly damp.
Climate change increases the likeliness of hotter, drier summer conditions that make it easier for fires (regardless of what sparked them) to grow and spread quickly.
So, although humans and lightning often ignite the fires, climate change creates the conditions that make fires more likely and more severe. It’s like climate change is setting the stage for forest fires to happen more often and to become harder to control. That’s part of why it’s so important to address climate change and take steps to prevent and manage forest fires effectively.