By Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, Aug 15, 2017 (with postcripts, as well as updates on Sept 16, 2017)
VANCOUVER, Canada—For nearly two weeks, beginning August 1, the skies over Vancouver were filled with the smoke of forest fires burning in central and northern British Columbia. The smoke from those fires and other fires farther afield has waxed and waned over much of North America since July. Three days ago, southern BC (Vancouver included) and northern Washington State gained a respite thanks to a weather front from the Pacific Ocean that pushed the smoke eastward. But the respite could end soon, depending on the vagaries of weather patterns.
On August 14, there were 162 fires burning in BC. Thousands of firefighters are battling to quell the fires, but new ones keep sparking, caused by continued dry weather, winds and lightning, or sometimes by human negligence. Since April 1, there have been more than 1,012 fires in the province.
Two updates, Sept 16, 2017:
1. As of Sept 14, 2017, there have been 1,249 wildfires in British Columbia in 2017. Dry conditions are continuing into September, with 155 fires still burning. The 2017 fires have burned 1.17 million hectares of land (11,700 square kilometers, or 4,517 square miles). This smashes the old record of forest fires in BC set in 1958, 858,000 hectares (record keeping began in 1950). A huge, new fire erupted in early September near the Canada-U.S. border where British Columbia and Alberta meet. The ‘Kenow’ fire has burned 35,000 hectares as of Sept 13, including much of Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. So far in 2017, the BC government has spent $510 million in combatting forest fires.
2. 2017 is not yet a record wildfire year in the United States, but it is close, with 8.3 million acres [3.4 million hectares] burned as of mid-September. More than 10 million acres burned in 2015, the worst fire season in decades. But much of that land, as in previous years, was far from population centers, in remote areas of Alaska or western rangelands… —New York Times, Sept 16, 2017
During the time the smoke hung over Vancouver region, public health authorities advised people to exercise caution in strenuous outdoors exercise due to smoke particulates in the air. People with respiratory ailments were advised to seek out clean air indoors. The deeper a person breathes, the deeper the particulates embed in the lungs.
On August 8, a typical day in the smoke, Vancouver region’s air was listed as “unhealthy” on the World Air Quality Index with a score of 100, where 500 is the worst reading. Beijing’s air that day was measured at 42, Mexico City’s air was 80.
The fires have been stoked by a wet spring that boosted vegetation growth followed by a long dry spell. Victoria BC set a record this year for consecutive days without rain—56 as of August 12. Seattle also set a record, 55 days on that same date. Overnight rains on August 12-13 ended the records, but the rainfall amounts were slight.
Tourism operators worried
Tourism is a multi-billion dollar business in Vancouver and in the province as a whole (revenue of $15.7 billion in 2015). Cruise ships, highways and airplanes bring in tens of thousands of visitors daily (5.5 million visitors in 2016). The mountains that rise from the north shore of Vancouver’s ocean harbour are a big draw for viewing and outdoor activity. But for several weeks in August, the view was dimmed by smoke, or the smoke blocked the view of the mountains entirely.
The mountains are only a few kilometers distance from Vancouver’s downtown core, but they were a world away for viewing when the smoke thickened. One tourist told CBC News that she came to Vancouver for a visit all the way from Beijing in part to escape that city’s heavily polluted air. “I left Beijing only to find myself back there,” she complained.
Nature has a way of interrupting the best laid plans of man and woman when it comes to tourism. Except there is nothing “natural” about what has taken place in British Columbia. It is a harbinger of troubled times ahead as the world’s average temperatures rise inexorably under the impact of human industrial and agro-industrial activity.
The scope of the fires
The annual average of wildfire in British Columbia for the years 2006-2016 was 155,000 hectares. The worst year on record was 1958 when 858,000 hectares burned. This year will easily top that.
Four of the top ten fire seasons in BC since 1950 have occurred in the past eight years. This at a time when more resources than ever are available to fight fires, including efforts to prevent them from breaking out in the first place.
The impact on humans by this year’s fires in BC is larger than normal due to the fires’ proximity to urban areas. Some 8,000 people in the province are presently evacuated from their homes. At the height of the fires in July, 37,000 people were evacuated, including the entire city of Williams Lake (population 11,000).
By comparison to this year’s fires in BC, the Horse River wildfire in Alberta in May 2016 burned 600,000 hectares. It destroyed much of the city of Fort McMurray and prompted a panicked, emergency evacuation of the entire city. Fort McMurray has a population of 85,000 and is the major service center for the tar sands extraction region of northern Alberta.
Across the northern hemisphere, the boreal forest is burning. In the United States (including Alaska), some 8.3 million hectares have burned, not far from the record year of 2015 when more than 10 million hectares burned. It’s a bad year in Siberia (eastern Russia) where some 436,500 hectares have burned to date. (That compares favorably to the same date in 2016 when more than one million hectares had burned by that date.) 
In all of Canada, the years 2004 to 2014 saw two to four million hectares burned each year.
In Australia, bushfire annual averages vary widely. The worst year from 1995 to 2004 was in 2003 when 4.7 million hectares burned. In 2003, 2006-07 and 2009, bushfires in Victoria State alone burned a combined area of over three million hectares.
Scandinavia is rather protected from forest fires by typically moist summers. Not so in southern Europe, where summer temperatures have been soaring. Wildfires in Portugal in August 2016 burned some 120,000 hectares. In June of this year, some 60 people died in a new round of ferocious wildfires.
The costs of fighting the increasingly harsher fires are rising accordingly. In BC, some 3,700 firefighters are battling the blazes; many of them have been hired from other Canadian provinces and from Mexico and faraway Australia. $293 million has been spent this year, and counting.
Firefighting adds to all the other steeply rising costs of changes to climate and weather around the globe.
The increased frequency of forest and bush fires around the world can be traced to three large trends.
One is the warming of average annual temperatures, causing declines or changes to snow and rainfall patterns in vulnerable forests and drying of summer conditions.
Two, in the northern hemisphere’s boreal forest at least, is the ongoing practice of clear cutting. In Canada, more than a century of industrial plunder of the forests has left them much more vulnerable to fire. Large trees are less vulnerable to fire, while natural forests with their wider variety of tree species rebound more quickly. Fire has always been an essential part of the renewal of established forests, but that gets compromised by clear cutting that reduces the average size of trees and by re-planting for commercial purposes that reduces the variety of species.
Incredibly, forest companies in British Columbia are still targeting the few remaining old growth forests for clear cutting. Government agencies—lapdogs for the forest industry—happily grant permission. Helicopters are now commonly used to log the sides and tops of mountains.
Three is fire suppression practices over the decades that have caused a buildup of fuel on forest floors. Much of forest fire suppression has little to do with protecting human populations and everything to do with protecting the revenues of the lumber and paper industries. In 2015 in Canada, the forest industry sold $22.1 billion worth of products, ranking it the fourth largest natural resource extracting industry in the country (after oil, minerals, and electrical generation, in that declining order).
Rising global temperatures are also increasing the damage to forests from insect infestations because winter temperatures are no longer cold enough to kill overwintering larvae. The pine forests of western Canada and the United States have been devastated by the spread of the mountain pine beetle. Spruce beetle infestations are expanding in North America.
There is an irony to the forest fire smoke over Vancouver which is caused, in part, by rising global temperatures. Municipal governments in the region and the provincial government tout themselves as being in the forefront of a ‘green’ revolution. Vancouver city (population of 630,000 in an urban region of 2.5 million), in particular, has declared that it aims to be the ‘greenest’ city in the world by the year 2020. These governments are anything but.
In reality, Vancouver and BC excel in ‘green’ public relations, also known as ‘greenwashing’.
* The Port of Vancouver, owned and operated by the federal government, is the largest exporter of coal in North America. The port is a doormat for the coal producers of Wyoming and Montana. They are obliged to make the long trek of their products by rail to Vancouver for export because in the name of combating global warming, states and municipalities up and down the U.S. west coast are refusing to allow new or expanded coal export terminals.
* The city of Vancouver likes to pretend that coal exports are not its fault because the region’s two export terminals are located in other municipalities (South Delta and North Vancouver). But Vancouver city’s true colours are shown by the fact that is a leading culprit in the grim, house price bubble that has gripped the entire region. One consequence of the house price spiral is ongoing urban sprawl and expansion of roads and bridges (including paving over valuable farmland in the Fraser River valley and delta) as people and industry seek cheaper places to build houses or warehouses or factories. The urban sprawl contributes significantly to rising greenhouse gas emissions.
* Vancouver’s airport and cruise ship terminals have grown hugely to accommodate the tourism industry, contributing significantly to rising emissions.
* Passenger rail transport–within and beyond the metropolitan region–has withered away to almost nothing as the provincial and federal governments turned their backs on rail. Even the billions of dollars spent on rapid (rail) transit have not kept pace with rising automobile traffic. In Vancouver region in 2011, 71 per cent of commuters used cars while only 20 per cent used transit (similar proportions to those of Toronto and Montreal). A May 2016 news article reports, “The percentage of Metro [Vancouver] residents who commute in cars for all of their trips—work, school, shopping, entertainment—is 57 per cent, exactly where it was in 1994.”
* Whereas the Fraser River valley and delta offer a large potential for expanding local food production, farmland is being paved over for urban sprawl while monoculture crops for short-term profit prevail over concerns for food security. A 2011 study at the University of Victoria on food security reported (using 2007 data), “BC agriculture has shifted markedly in the past 50 years from a fairly balanced production of meat, fish, dairy, grain, fruit and vegetables to one that is now more heavily focused on production of grains grown for livestock, meat, fish and dairy, with less local and more import reliance on cereals for human consumption, fruit and vegetables.” A November 2014 Globe and Mail article was headlined, ‘California droughts could leave B.C. high and dry on food’.
* Vancouver’s ‘green’ credentials are under severe test by the proposed tripling of capacity of Kinder Morgan Inc’s Trans Mountain pipeline route that brings Alberta oil and bitumen to the port of Vancouver for export. Most municipal governments in Vancouver region oppose the expansion, but their arguments are weak. They cite the dangers of oil spills and some cite the inadequacy or failure of consultation with affected First Nations communities along the route. Important as are these arguments, the most compelling case against the pipeline is that it worsens Canada’s already significant contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. But that is something that few political leaders voice because it would cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the climate vandalism of established industry.
The three modern-day scourges
Human civilization faces three grave threats to its survival and prosperity: global warming due to human industrial and agro-industrial activity; rising poverty and social inequity; and rising war and militarism, including the threat of nuclear weapons.
We have seen above how the municipal governments in Vancouver region and the BC provincial government share direct culpability for the global warming emergency. They are also culpable for rising poverty.
Vancouver and British Columbia are poverty ghettos, where starvation-level minimum wage rates ($11.35 as of Sept 15, 2017) and welfare rates prevail. (The new, Green Party-supported NDP provincial government has promised to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour… in 2021! Even that modest promise has been dropped.) For many residents, prospects for good paying and socially constructive jobs are dim. There is a grim lack of affordable housing, caused by a house price bubble, itself fuled by the abandonment decades ago of responsibility by governments to build quality, affordable housing.
The poorest of the poor are dying sad and lonely lives in an alarming drug addiction crisis. So far in 2017, there have been 232 deaths in Vancouver city from opioid drug addiction, already exceeding the number of such deaths for all of 2016.
On the front of war and militarism, the government in Ottawa carries the can. It is closely allied with the Trump-led U.S. government in waging or encouraging war in such places as Ukraine, Syria and Iraq, and threatening yet more war in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Ottawa does so with no opposition whatsoever from other levels of government in the country.
As Vancouver residents await the likely return of forest fire smoke dimming the summer sky once again, it’s high time to clear the political air. Time is running out to move decisively to save the planet and mitigate the worst of what capitalism’s greed and excess is delivering. The triple scourge facing humanity must be defeated. We need to mobilize like never before and blaze new paths to a society of peace, social justice and ecological harmony.
 Daily wildfire reports are broadcast by the BC government on the Facebook page of the BC Wildfire Service. The daily, comprehensive audio reports for the entire province appears as of Sept 12 to be discontinued.
In an apparent case of wanting his cake and eating it too, he later writes in the article, “Is climate change a factor? Of course.” But no explanation of this assertion is offered. Here’s one: According to NASA, 2016 was the third year in a row to set a new record for global average surface temperatures.
1. Drought-affected trees die from hydraulic failure and carbon starvation, Aug 7, 2017. Since the publication of the above article, a new study shows that drought has more severe, lasting effects than previously known on forests’ capacity to resist fire. Article here, study published on Science Daily here.
Summary: Drought, a recurring phenomenon with major impacts on both human and natural systems, is the most widespread climatic extreme that negatively affects the land carbon sink. Although 20th century trends in drought regimes are ambiguous, across many regions more frequent and severe droughts are expected in the 21st century.
Recovery time—how long an ecosystem requires to revert to its pre-drought functional state—is a critical metric of drought impact. Yet the factors influencing drought recovery and its spatiotemporal patterns at the global scale are largely unknown. Here we analyse three independent datasets of gross primary productivity and show that, across diverse ecosystems, drought recovery times are strongly associated with climate and carbon cycle dynamics, with biodiversity and CO2 fertilization as secondary factors. Our analysis also provides two key insights into the spatiotemporal patterns of drought recovery time: first, that recovery is longest in the tropics and high northern latitudes (both vulnerable areas of Earth’s climate system) and second, that drought impacts (assessed using the area of ecosystems actively recovering and time to recovery) have increased over the 20th century. If droughts become more frequent, as expected, the time between droughts may become shorter than drought recovery time, leading to permanently damaged ecosystems and widespread degradation of the land carbon sink.
3. Threats to North American forests from southern pine beetle with warming winters, by Corey Lesk, Ethan Coffel, Anthony W. D’Amato, Kevin Dodds and Radley Horton, study published on Nature Climate Change, Aug 28, 2017 (subscriber only) A news report of the study is here on Inside Climate News, Aug 28, 2017.
In coming decades, warmer winters are likely to ease range constraints on many cold-limited forest insects. Recent unprecedented expansion of the southern pine beetle (SPB, Dendroctonus frontalis) into New Jersey, New York and Connecticut in concert with warming annual temperature minima highlights the risk that this insect pest poses to the pine forests of the northern United States and Canada under continued climate change. Here we present projections of northward expansion in SPB-suitable climates using a statistical bioclimatic range modelling approach and current-generation general circulation model output under Representative Concentration Pathways 4.5 and 8.5. Results show that by the middle of the 21st century, the climate is likely to be suitable for SPB expansion into vast areas of previously unaffected forests throughout the northeastern United States and into southeastern Canada. This scenario would pose a significant economic and ecological risk to the affected regions, including disruption of local ecosystem services, shifts in forest structure, and threats to native biodiversity.
4. Facing Canada’s wildfire disaster
By Mika McKinnon, published in New Scientist, print edition of Aug 19, 2017 (full text enclosed)
KAMLOOPS, British Columbia – It’s stiflingly hot and I’m trapped inside a dome of smoke. I know I’m in a river valley nestled within mountain ranges, but the visibility is cut so low that I can’t see any of the dramatic peaks that dominate landscapes across British Columbia. It’s the worst documented wildfire season since 1958, and smoke is an omnipresent and unwelcome companion.
“We have a very significant fire season unfolding,” says Daniel Perrakis, a fire research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service. It’s the largest area burned since the advent of modern fire-suppression and fire-management techniques, he says. Over 591,000 hectares have burned so far.
I’ve left my coastal home in Vancouver and travelled inland to support evacuations, joining the swarms of volunteers being deployed to help.
Shifting winds and an atmospheric wall of high pressure have funnelled smoke into the city of Kamloops, filling the air with an unprecedented 684.5 micrograms of fine material per cubic metre. That’s nearly 70 times more than the World Health Organization’s guidelines for safe exposure limits. My eyes sting when I walk outside, and I feel the throb of a headache coming on if I dare walk as far as the street corner. Even indoors, the smell of smoke whispers through the ventilation systems until it clings to everything. I woke up to ash on my toothbrush, large black flakes against white bristles.
Fuel to the fire
The story of how things got like this is a slow-speed disaster of climate change, a beetle invasion, and the unintended consequences of well-meaning policy gone wrong.
British Columbia is a mountainous, highly forested province in western Canada. More than half of the province is forest, with lodgepole pine dominating every ecosystem except the alpine tundra. “It’s a tree that is really everywhere in BC,” says Perrakis. Over the past century, the forest industry has transformed native forests into denser, more homogenous stands by suppressing fires and selectively replanting the most economically valuable species after harvesting. “They weren’t nefarious policies at the time, based on what was known,” says Perrakis.
But one unintended recent consequence has been a province-wide bark beetle outbreak that has devastated the region’s forests – with the dying trees heightening the fire threat. The dense, homogenous stands of lodgepole pine allowed native mountain pine beetles to spread quickly, while a changing climate reduced the severity and duration of cold winters that historically kept the beetle population in check. The infestation hit its peak between 2006 and 2008, although it has begun to slow down in recent years.
I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the once-green mountain slopes spotted with beetle-killed trees: first, one pine turns red as it dies, then more and more follow in speckled waves. Between six months and four years later, depending on individual circumstances, the red needles drop, leaving trees that look like grey, dry skeletons. Now, over 11 per cent of the province is covered in a forest graveyard of dead trees.
The dead trees in the “red attack” phase are already known to pose a high fire risk. “We saw fire spread rates two to three times higher in these red-attacked stands,” says Perrakis. Fires burned quickly through the dry tree crowns, racing ahead of firefighters’ attempts to contain and control them. But starting in around 2011, forests became dominated with the grey tree skeletons – and we don’t yet fully understand how this “grey attack” phase affects wildfires. The situation is complex, with various competing factors either helping or hindering fires.
Without needles, fires no longer spread through forest crowns, but “underburns” racing along the ground are still common as new plants take over the forest. Fire-resistant aspen are taking over some hillsides, whereas highly flammable black spruce is growing in others.
Now when a fire starts, it spreads through a new mix of plants, and the dry wood of the beetle-killed trees adds to fire intensity and smoke production. “The dead trees fall over much more easily, sometimes even with just a breath of wind,” says Perrakis. This increases the danger to crews working in these stands.
Going on burning
This year in British Columbia, over half a million hectares have burned since 1 April, and with 126 fires still burning, that number may keep growing before the snows come. With slow starts to milder winters, that might not be until December. And we have no guarantees that this same disaster won’t unfold again next year, or the year after that.
Sunlight filtering through the smoke creates a perpetual golden hour and dampens shadows, making me feel trapped in a single moment at which time is standing still. It’s hard to remember the world is passing by outside our smoky bubble.
During the drive home, we pass through a recently burned area. Helicopters with water buckets cross the highway, dumping their load on fires I can smell but not see. Hillsides are stained red with fire retardants, remnants of lines drawn to keep the flames back. Some of these efforts worked. Others didn’t, charred homes silent testaments to battles lost. Smoke thins over the 500-kilometre journey home, but never disappears.
Information on the article author here.
5. The view from Montana: Wildfires: The smoking gun of Western climate change?, by Cathy Whitlock, Kelsey Jencso and Nick Silverman, published in the Independent Record (Helena, Montana), Sept 15, 2017 (and reprinted in CounterPunch, September 15, 2017)