Fire and Smoke

Along the line of smoky hills
The crimson forest stands . . .

When William Wilfred Campbell wrote his poem “Indian Summer,” he probably never imagined that the first two lines would encapsulate this summer of fire and smoke. That the hills would be hazy with real smoke, that the forest would be crimson with wild fire.

This summer has been very smoky here in Alberta, but we should be thankful we have only smoke to complain about. Other people are facing the terrifying “crimson forest” of wild fire. All across British Columbia and eastward across the northern prairies to northwestern Ontario, forests are on fire, communities are evacuated, and property is lost.

Airdrie, as viewed from the west: Now you see it (above), now you don’t (below)

On June 29, the town of Lytton, BC, had the dubious distinction of breaking the record for the hottest temperature in Canada (held by Yellowgrass, Saskatchewan, since 1937) when the temperature reached 49.6C (121.3 F). The next day, a wild fire destroyed the town. The fire spread so fast, most people escaped only with the clothes they were wearing. Two people lost their lives.

The White Rock Lake fire in the Okanagan valley in central BC now encompasses 55,000 hectares (135,000 acres). It has destroyed towns, farms and ranches. More than 2000 people have been evacuated. The cities of Vernon and Kamloops are on evacuation alert. There appears to be no end in sight – the weather continues hot and dry, the winds strong.

Canada is not alone. At 189,00 hectares (466,000+ acres), the Dixie fire in California dwarfs the White Rock Lake fire. It has destroyed more than 100 homes and leveled an historic gold rush era town. No one knows how many people it has killed or left homeless. It is only one of many fires burning in the American west.

Greece is on fire. So is Turkey. And Siberia. The list goes on.

People have died, they’ve lost homes and businesses, they are destitute and frightened, and they feel helpless in the face of a monstrous catastrophe with no apparent end in sight. And all this, in the midst of a pandemic that also seems to have no apparent end in sight. It brings to mind the post-apocalyptic world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Or worse, the potential for Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all.”

Many people say that this year’s fires are the result of human-caused global warming. We’ve had a winter and spring with little or no snow or rain, and a summer of scorching hot heat. Places such as California have endured these drought conditions for years.

But other practices and events have exacerbated the wild fire situation. A century of forest management has priorized preservation of timber for commercial purposes, with the consequence a thick cover of ground trash and a dense monoculture of pine or spruce. Combine that with a decade-long invasion of mountain pine beetle that killed vast tracts of boreal and alpine forest. Under those circumstances, all it takes is one careless person throwing away a cigarette butt, or a lightning strike from a dry thunderstorm, or even just a discarded pop bottle reflecting sun and heat onto a patch of dry grass. Suddenly, the world is ablaze.

Don’t get me wrong – I do not deny climate change. Far from it. As an archaeologist, I’ve learned the trajectory of climate change throughout human history.

The Little Ice Age lasted from about 1300 to 1800 AD. Crops perished and people starved (the Black Death didn’t help). The Thames River froze and people skated on it. Before that was the Medieval Warm period that facilitated the Vikings’ establishing settlements on Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland, as well as the eastward migration of the Thule people through ice-free waters of the Canadian Arctic.

Even longer ago, from about 8000 to 4000 years ago, the Altithermal or Climatic Optimum was a period of warmer, drier conditions that challenged people living on the North American plains. In fact, archaeologists long thought that the Great Plains were uninhabitable in ancient times; that changed with the discovery of the 10,000 year-old Folsom site in 1926.

Earth and its climate are dynamic, always changing, sometimes slowly, sometimes in an instant. This time, human agency is magnifying these changes. We are facing the cumulative result of 100 years of profligate energy use. The recent UN’s report from the IPCC is damning, and terrifying.

Humans have survived millennia of alternating warm/dry and cold/wet periods. We are on the cusp of another one now. Raging “crimson forests” and “smoky hills” may be our fate for years to come. Will we survive it?

#ClimateChange #WildFires #RecordHeat #Drought #LyttonBC #DixieFire #WhiteRockLakeFire #DynamicEarth #LittleIceAge #MedievalWarmPeriod #ClimaticOptimum #MargaretGHanna