Disaster

SEASON OF FLAMES

Stubborn fires in British Columbia and Alberta reignite the global warming debate

DAVID THOMAS August 18 2003
Disaster

SEASON OF FLAMES

Stubborn fires in British Columbia and Alberta reignite the global warming debate

DAVID THOMAS August 18 2003

SEASON OF FLAMES

Disaster

DAVID THOMAS

Stubborn fires in British Columbia and Alberta reignite the global warming debate

IT’S HARD to hide a forest fire. Yet British Columbia’s emergency response office advised public health officials that it would be best not to warn the public about the smoke smothering the southeastern corner of the province—because it might discourage tourists from crossing into B.C. through Alberta’s flaming Crowsnest Pass. British Columbia abandoned the speak-noevil strategy when its own interior suddenly exploded in a series of blazes sparked by lightning and human negligence—fires that increased in size and number throughout last week as cells of dry lightning moved across the province. As flames destroyed the tiny sawmill town of Louis Creek and forced thousands of people to flee from homes around Barrière, McLure, Falkland, Vernon, Salmon Arm and Kamloops, Premier Gordon Campbell appealed for federal dollars to pay pilots of tanker planes and helicopters and thousands of brave and blackened firefighters on the ground.

The province’s greens were quick to cluck

Southwestern Alberta and the B.C. interior were major hot spots in a continuing battle

FIRE ZONES

that the government’s eagerness to find and burn more, not less, fossil fuel is encouraging climatic chaos that’s lethal for B.C.’s traditional mainstay industries, including forestry and tourism. British Columbia’s minister responsible for both science policy and tourism, Rick Thorpe, barked: “To say that the fire situation is the result of climate change and that it will be permanent is, in my opinion, naive.” Thorpe “can keep

his head in the sand if he wants,” rejoined Dermot Foley, climate change analyst with Vancouver’s David Suzuki Foundation. “We have a serious problem with the natural ecosystem being kicked out of whack by climate change.”

The banter between the alleged Chicken Little and the accused ostrich only contributed heat to the debate over the causes of climate change, but the fires themselves

certainly illuminated the vulnerability of B.C.’s delicate ecosystems and economies to extreme weather. Logging in much of B.C.’s so-called working forest had been shut down because of fire risk well before the current conflagrations. More than a month without rain, and temperatures into the 30s, made it too risky to operate machinery in the bush. Worsening the fire risk were the large swaths of deceased lodgepole pines, dev-

astated by the mountain pine beede. The bug has been endemic for eons, but kept in check by B.C.’s intense winter cold snaps. But the past century’s run of consistently warmer weather (up on average by 1. Io C since 1895) has allowed the beetle to thrive and disfigure mountainscapes throughout the southern interior. The province estimates that 300 million trees and $6 billion worth of wood have been lost over the past two

decades alone. In nature’s brutal quest for balance, the beetles are ultimately consumed by the hellish fires they help provoke.

Warmer weather has also delayed the start of the lucrative ski season in recent winters. Last year, one resort in southeastern B.C. had to chairlift its early-season European customers up a mountain, then back down again from the few higher-altitude runs that had at least a bare minimum of snow. In

the meantime, the Campbell government pursues the environmentally contentious program of separating methane gas from deep coal deposits. That includes the construction of privately owned coal-fired generating stations high in the Rocky Mountains—in places within sight and smell of fires still smoldering near Coleman, Hillcrest and Blairmore, across the Crowsnest Pass in Alberta. lifl