British Columbia’s blaze stokes long-term carbon concerns

British Columbia’s second-largest wildfire in recorded history is rapidly consuming hundreds of thousands of hectares of forested land in the province’s north-east.

500,000 hectares of boreal forest between Fort Nelson and Fort St. John are now burning out of control.

It isn’t just the scale of the fire, but also the intense heat that matters. The Globe & Mail reports that wild land fire ecologist Robert Gray says that the higher the temperature a fire burns at, the more energy it releases and the more carbon it emits into the atmosphere. It’s estimated that the Donnie Creek blaze has already let off over 77 million tons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions.

The Globe & Mail says that “Mr. Gray describes the situation as a rapidly worsening feedback loop, wherein climate change creates hotter, dryer conditions, which spur more severe wildfire seasons, which in turn produce greater amounts of carbon, which then contribute right back into climate change.”

In the past, forests have successfully self-regulated carbon emissions, with the amount released from wildfires balanced out by the plant life spurred in subsequent years. But for several decades Canada’s forests haven’t emitted more than they have absorbed.

“In 2021,” says the Globe and Mail, “the most recent year reported by Environment and Climate Change Canada, wildfires in the country’s managed forest areas (230 million hectares) produced 293 million tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, together known as carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions. The resulting 292 million tons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions released into the atmosphere is equivalent to about 43% of Canada’s GHG emissions from every other source that year.

“The amount is striking, but isn’t a type of emission Canada has to include in its GHG reports to the United Nations. Despite being increasingly exacerbated by human activity, wildfires are still considered a natural disturbance and Canada chooses to keep them off the official record.

“The most effective way of tackling the level of carbon released, according to Mr. Gray, is not by suppressing all fires (as has long been the strategy) but by reducing the amount of area being burned at a high temperature. Determining the best steps to do so is the goal of the Wildfire and Carbon project, which he, Dr. Kurz and Dr. Smyth work on together.

“Fire is a natural component of our ecosystems. We’re not going to be able to get rid of all fires. But we can reduce some of the fuels that are available to burn,” Dr. Smyth says.

“Their team is looking to Indigenous stewardship practices for guidance and sees actions such as planting fire-tolerant species, creating more fire breaks in the landscape, removing fuels and restoring ecosystems following fires as promising.

“If extreme fires are going to become more common, we need to figure out ways to better live with fire, to be more resilient to fire,” Dr. Smyth says.”

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