This year’s spate of wildfires across the western Prairies were not an anomaly, but rather a “glimpse into the future” for Alberta farmers.
“In Canada, our area burned has doubled since the 1970s, and I — and a number of others — attribute this to climate change,” said Mike Flannigan, a professor with the department of renewable resources at the University of Alberta.
“Our weather is becoming more conducive to fire. Whether you believe it’s due to human activities or not, that fact of the matter is the climate is changing, and we’re seeing more extreme fire weather. And we expect to see more in the future.”
On average, temperatures in Canada have warmed by about 1.3 C over the past 75 years, and will likely continue to rise further, said Flannigan. And those increased temperatures will lead to increased incidence of wildfire.
“The warmer it gets, the more fire we have,” he said.
Wildfires need three ingredients: fuel (such as crops, grasses, shrubs, and trees), an ignition source (lightning, downed power lines, or careless humans), and hot, dry, windy weather.
“If you get all three, you get fire,” said Flannigan, who is also director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science. “Once the fire is up and running, it’s all about the amount of fuel you have and what the weather is like.”
And as temperatures increase, all three ingredients are easier to come by, he said. First, warmer temperatures mean a longer fire season.
“In Alberta now, we can see fire any month of the year,” said Flannigan, pointing to fire near Granum (northwest of Lethbridge) that burned through 54,000 acres in the middle of December 1997 as an example.
“In southern Alberta, you can have major fires any month of the year as long as there’s no snow. And there’s not a heck of a lot of snow in southern Alberta right now.”
Secondly, the warmer it gets, the more often lightning will strike.
“This may play a lesser role for people on farmland, but lightning can and does start fires.”
And warmer temperatures mean the atmosphere gets better at “sucking the moisture out of vegetation” through evapotranspiration.
“Unless there’s precipitation, fuels will be drier, and if the fuels are drier, it’s easier for fires to start and spread,” said Flannigan.
Lessening the threat
But there are things that can be done to protect farms and communities as the incidence of wildfires increases in Western Canada, he said.
“For many farming areas, it’s mostly people that cause fires. And the thing about people-caused fires is that they’re all preventable.
“We can’t do anything about lightning, but we sure can do things about human-caused fires.”
In a lot of cases, wildfires in the Prairies burn through dry stubble or grass.”
That’s what happened in many parts of B.C.’s interior this summer, he said.
“In B.C., a lot of the valleys aren’t treed. They have crops, and they burned horribly. Because it was a wet winter, there was a perception that fires weren’t going to be a problem, but in many regions — especially those with farmland — you can go from wet to raging fire within a week.
“If you have a week of really warm, hot, dry, windy weather, you can have a fire situation. It doesn’t matter how wet the winter or spring was.”
Green plants don’t burn very well, he said, so farms are most at risk in the early spring and late fall.
“For many farms, fire risk is in the spring after the snow goes, or in the fall after things have cured,” said Flannigan. “We can’t do much about day-to-day weather. We can’t do anything about lightning. But we can do something about the fuels.”
Where there are fields of dry grass, crops, or stubble, producers in at-risk regions should reduce the amount of available fuel by cutting grass, removing crops and debris, and tilling the perimeter of fields to create a firebreak.
“If you turn the soil over, it’s not going to spread. Dirt doesn’t burn.”
Cattle producers should also keep an eye on feed storage. Fires can start quickly in stored hay due to heating, so bales and other feed sources should be stored properly and at the right moisture levels.
But ultimately, producers need to show wildfires the respect they deserve, which often isn’t the case with smaller grass fires, said Flannigan.
“These grass fires can be extremely dangerous,” said Flannigan. “The flames may not be as large or intense as those in Fort McMurray, where we saw just a wall of flames. These flames might be a metre (tall), and you think, ‘Hey, that’s nothing. I can deal with this.’
“No. These fires can be deadly.”
For more information on how to protect your farm or ranch from fire, visit the FireSmart Canada website.