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Five wildfires that should alarm us

By Pieta Woolley

It’s September, and British Columbia is still on fire. This summer, more than 40,000 people were evacuated from their homes as more than a million hectares burned. This is the worst wildfire season in the province on record.

Of course, in Canada, this is big news. But around the world, this hot season has sparked several raging wildfires — though British Columbia’s still represent some of the worst fires on Earth.

Fires couldn’t ask for more hospitable conditions than climate change has delivered. Dryer, hotter weather, trees weakened by pest infestations and lengthier summers overall contribute to forests that burn unnaturally larger, longer and out of control, even by nature’s wild standards.

Surprisingly, given that last year’s Fort McMurray, Alta. and California fires are still fresh in memory, there’s relatively little panic outside of fire zones. Instead, dread is reserved for human dramas, such as nuclear war, rather than the certainty that vasts swaths of populated earth will be turned to ash next summer, in 2019 — and each year beyond that.

Furthermore, when there’s a large fire in your own country, it’s easy to focus narrowly, rather than on the burning and smoke-spewing global maelstrom.

Here are five fires that should scare you into your underground bunker.

1. Portugal

What happened: In mid-June, 156 wildfires started around the Pedrogao Grande region, in the centre of the country. Crews came from Spain, France and Morocco to help fight the fires, using Canadian-made amphibious airplanes. People died in their cars, trying to escape.

Hectares burned: 45,000

Causes: Lightening from dry storms during a heat wave. Invasive eucalyptus has taken over much of the country’s pine forests, creating fields of tinder. 

Human cost: 64 lives, plus more than 200 injuries

2. Chile

What happened: Just after New Year’s, the first fires sparked. Soon, nearly 3,000 fires burned for weeks, leaving a blackened swath across the country. The United States and Russia both sent help.

Hectares burned: 1.25 million

Causes: Unknown, but critics note that initial response to the fires — both government and corportate — seemed disorganized and inadequate.

Human cost: 11 lives, and several entire towns have burned down, including more than 1,000 buildings in Santa Olga

3. Indonesia

What happened: No list of wildfires would be complete without a mention of Indonesia, where peat bog fires have become endemic, regularly sending a toxic haze over Southeast Asia. August is the beginning of the dry season in this part of the world. Already, five regions have declared states of emergency.

Hectares burned: Unknown. So far, 2015 and 1997 have been the worst years.

Causes: Usually wildfires emerge from slash-and-burn agriculture

Human cost: One estimate suggests that Indonesian wildfires release as much CO2 each year as the U.K.’s entire human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Within Southeast Asia, people suffer respiratory distress from the haze.

4. Western United States: Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Montana

What happened: After a wet spring, predictions for a mild wildfire season were welcome, especially after last year’s trauma. But a later than-usual fire season has arrived in full force — and this seems to be just the beginning.

Hectares burned: At least 445,000, representing hundreds of fires

Causes: A teen setting off fireworks has been blamed for sparking a massive wildfire in Oregon. But record-setting high temperatures, dry conditions, lightening and wind set the stage for these particular forest fires.  

Human cost: Unknown currently

5. South Africa

What happened: On June 7, a strong wind storm hit the Cape region, flooding homes and damaging buildings on its own. About 30 fires started, and the winds carried them. The response represented the biggest firefighting deployment ever in South Africa.

Hectares burned: 60,000+

Causes: There’s speculation that they began as arson, but the storm was responsible for spreading them.

Human cost: At least nine lives, and thousands of people have lost their homes and have been displaced

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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