I sat out admiring the lake on a warm summer afternoon the other day. Although it was only four o’clock and the sun would not set for another five hours, I was in full view of a reddish orange globe hanging in the sky. Smoke and pollutants from hundreds of blazes burning in the wilderness if northwestern Ontario were filling the sky high into the atmosphere. The thin layer of smoke that rose in the air could be noticed by the fact that the sun took on a brilliant reddish hue.
Forest fires are a common occurrence in the North. We Cree valued burned-over areas along the James Bay coast because they provided a source of dry dead firewood that could be easily cut and collected for the winter. Most of these fires were on small tracts of land that left charred, dead trees
where they stood as the bark burned and the branches and roots were singed.
Fires are a natural part of the forest life cycle that renew the landscape for new growth to occur. But modern fires are growing in size and intensity, and scientific research show that this is mostly driven by our own human activity.
Climate scientists have warned us for decades that as the weather warms, it will bring a cascade of environmental change. More carbon in the atmosphere means temperatures rise worldwide, drying the forests and increasing the risk of ever larger fires earlier in the spring and for longer periods. There is even the rare phenomenon known as “zombie fires” – fires that smolder for months underground and then reignite after the spring thaw. In an article by Science News, researchers report that as winters become milder and the summers become hotter, zombie fires could become more frequent.
During every recent summer, many Indigenous remote wilderness communities have had to be evacuated due to huge burning infernos. In 2019, there were catastrophic bush fires in Australia. Then in 2020, major fires burned through Washington and Oregon in the western US. This year, heat waves with temperatures of almost 50C are scorching Western Canada and led to the forest fire that destroyed the town of Lytton, BC.
The world seems to be in a state of denial, and we all don’t really want to believe that our climate could change so much in such a short space of time that it could cause so much devastation. We like to think that these major forest fires might be a “one-off” season or just a freak of nature that won’t happen again for a long time. Unfortunately, the science and the research that so many professionals have pointed to all say the same thing that global warming will cause more droughts and more forest fires as the world heats up.
As a matter of fact, the process of heat, fire and drought all work together to intensify one another. As the environment heats up, more drought occurs, as more drought occurs, forest and bush fires become more pronounced and as more fires happen, more carbon is released into the air to make the problems of global warming worse. Scientists have warned about this for years and now they are telling world leaders that we are headed towards a climate emergency. They are demanding action.
As natural as fires may be for forests, the size and intensity of modern fires are a sign that we are driving the changes in our world. We all have to work together the world over to find solutions to manage fossil-fuel use, create more environmentally friendly solutions to producing energy and to find ways to reduce our culture of sending so much carbon into our atmosphere.
If we could channel as much energy and resources into solutions as we do in trying to send people into space, we could do so much to save our environment and by extension save ourselves. Even in the midst of an historic pandemic we cannot ignore climate change and the impending danger to life on this planet.