Did climate change contribute to the Fort McMurray fire?

Experts say forest fires are more frequent, and more intense, due to climate change

The processing facility at the Suncor tar sands operations near Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

The processing facility at the Suncor tar sands operations near Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Leading Alberta scientists say climate change likely contributed to the Fort McMurray wildfire.

The fire has forced more than 80,000 people to flee and is already being described as one of the most devastating in Alberta’s history. Yet Marc-André Parisien, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service in Edmonton, says Alberta can expect even more intense fires in the coming years.

“We know from looking at weather records from the last 100 years that the fire season is lengthening, and intense fires like this are increasingly common,” says Parisien.

Parisien says last year’s drought (so extreme the Alberta government officially classified it as a disaster) and El Niño conditions, which caused much of Canada to experience a mild winter, made the vegetation and soil extremely dry—and therefore prime fuel for fire.

The Alberta government lists both droughts and forest fires as extreme weather events that are made more likely by climate change. The Natural Resources Canada website, last updated Feb. 2, features a similar warning about climate-change-fuelled forest fires.

Related: Want to help those fleeing Fort McMurray? Here’s how.

Mike Flannigan, a professor at the University of Alberta and the director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science, is a leading expert on forest fires. “The area burned in Canada has increased over the past 40 to 50 years. This is due to human-caused climate change,” says Flannigan.

Flannigan says that rising temperatures in Canada lead to drying soil and vegetation, increased lightning strikes, and longer fire seasons. After the 2011 Slave Lake area wildfires, Alberta pushed the beginning of fire season from April 1 to March 1.

A 2014 study published in Science found that climate change led to an increase in lightning strikes—one of the common ways wildfires get started.

Stephen Johnston, chair of the earth and atmospheric sciences department at the University of Alberta, echoes Flannigan’s concerns. “Climate change makes extreme weather events more common. From that perspective, you could say this is more of the extreme types of weather that you’d expect.”

A 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that boreal forests—the type of forest currently burning in Fort McMurray—haven’t burned so frequently in at least 10,000 years.

In Canada, there’s also evidence that more forest is burning than ever before. A January 2016 study in Climatic Change co-authored by Flannigan, said that 8,000 fires burned over two million hectares on average per year, over the past decade. According to Flannigan, previous decades saw an average of about one million hectares burn per year.

While the experts agree, politicians do not. When Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said the Fort McMurray fire is likely a symptom of climate change, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said linking any specific natural disasters to climate change is not helpful—and it’s better to map whether the frequency and intensity of disasters is increasing.

John Geddes interviews John Innes, UBC’s dean of forestry, on the impact of climate change:



Did climate change contribute to the Fort McMurray fire?

  1. Thank you so much for writing this! Helping people make the connection between climate change and the forest fires we are already experiencing is so important for reducing catastrophes like this moving forward.

  2. Yes it more than likely did. ie yes.

    We need immediate and serious discussion on what we are going to do to adapt to increasing global temperatures.

    We are going to get at least another 1-2C. Part of that discussion must be mitigation because we can not adapted in any meaningful way to 3C or 4C rise.

  3. The 2013 study you cite does not address southern boreal forests. It deals with Northwestern boreal forests You see people forget that the boreal forests are huge covering up to 55% of Canada’s land mass and that this land area cannot be treated as if it was one single unit. Put another way, central Alberta and central Alaska are a long ways apart and experience very different climatic conditions.

    As for Stephen Johnston, he defty avoided answering your question and answered a totally different one. Perhaps next time re-stating the question would help you get a cogent response.

    As for fire areas, when you actually run the stats no trend is yet evident in the data. The models suggest it will happen but as of 2016, the data is not there to support the hypothesis.

  4. Forest fires like this occur in the boreal forests every year, since 98% of the biome is uninhabited they usually go unnoticed by the media. What makes this one special, is it hit the only big town in it.
    On top of all that it’s an El Nino year. Hot, dry conditions in the western boreal forest are its hallmark.

    Unsubstantiated attributions to climate change in the media of everything from VD to forest fires, is why the public is still so skeptical after all these years. Only once we stop sounding like panicky lunatics and drop the hyperbole, will we get the public support needed to effect change.

    In the meantime stop attributing the fire to climate change, it’s not remotely true and it engenders public hostility.

    • Fancylad is correct. But first: The Fort Mac fire is sickening. Those poor poor people. My heart goes out to the poor souls of Fort Mac.

      Fort Mac was built right inside a forest. Historically, because of the nature of coniferous forests they burn every several decades…spruce and pine forests do that…their seed cones have evolved to open after fires. These boreal forests have natural life spans of +/- 100+ years. Fort Mac subdivisions were built into the forests with parts surrounded by forest and this was the perfect storm: an El Nino period that has been hot and dry and a city built into the forest. Poof.

      [Not a lot different than for the floods in Calgary in 2013. There had been worse floods in the 1800s…but the the entire downtown area and many residential areas were built on flood plains….that have flooded many times over the centuries. Forests burn and flood plains flood. These are indeed man-made disasters caused by very inappropriate planning and urban design.]

      In 1910, much of the forested areas in SW Alberta burned. In 1919, a fire complex south of Fort Mac on the AB-SK border consumed 2.8 million hectares!! Google: “Canada’s major wildland fire disasters of the past, 1825-1938” and “The 1910 fires in Alberta’s foothills and rocky mountain regions”

      In 2012, the IPCC could find no global trends in wildfires, floods and droughts. They attributed losses to poor planning and vulnerability. The ONLY thing they could claim with some certainty was, “Rapid urbanization and the growth of megacities … have led to the emergence of highly vulnerable urban communities, particularly through … inadequate land management.” This describes Fort Mac to a tee. And this is the IPCC speaking.

      As long as we continue to spend (now) trillions on the wrong problem, we will never have enough money for real environmental protection and mitigation.

      • Great explanation for why we are blaming floods and fires on climate change when they have occurred throughout the last two centuries and climate change is apparently a fairly new phenomenon. This practice of attributing everything to climate change, including chinook winds does little for the credibility of the cause especially when we know how El Nino winters work.

  5. Proving that the media is more than happy to pit people against each other during a difficult time.

  6. Spread love not fear.
    35 years of climate action failure to save the planet from Human monkey gas is absolute proof science couldn’t be certain of a CO2 END OF DAYS no matter how hard some people exaggerated and abused vague climate science.

    Gov’t mandated emission laws since the 1960’s have made Smog Warning Days rare for decades in
    most of N. America and we are living longer now than at any time in human history as a species. And now fracking’s abundance is ending the oil wars with possible world peace and giving us reliable fossil fuel energy for countless generations to come. Wind and solar are nothing more than Y2K jokes and buggy whips in our children’s history books. Life is good. Be happy. This is the best time in history to be alive.

    • Vague climate science? In what way? Have you read any of the IPCC reports? How familiar are you with climate science or at least with the interpretation of statistics? Smog is also due more to particular in the air, like coal dust, that CO2. And worldwide and locally, smog warnings are also on the rise. You say the oil wars are ending, what makes you say that? Those seem to have awfully strong opinions without any facts to back them up. Are you really willing to gamble with the future just to protect the investments of the fossil fuel industry? It’s not like the changes required to deal with climate change would send humanity back to the stone age. They just require change to other energy sources. What is so hard about that?

  7. Was the forest surrounding the town a highly flammable “old grown” forest?
    If it was then who is at fault, not the lumber companies wanting to manage forestry with skill and science.

  8. Yes, climate change is happening but these forest fires happen all the time. Usually they are given little notice by southerners unless the fire affects populated areas. In 1981, long before the massive development in Fort McMurray, my husband and I convoyed through a massive forest fire that had jumped Highway 63 but didn’t come into town, with burnt out cars, escaping bears and fire on either side of the road. This was only one of the three times the road closed while we lived there. My sister living in Northern Ontario was on evacuation alert for an entire week three years ago, car packed up and ready to go. While homesteading near Timmins decades ago my grandparents were burnt out twice. The real danger posed by forest fire is not news to anyone from the north.

    • They may happen, but not this early and not this often. Climate changes isn’t saying never before told fires will happen, it’s saying the scale and frequency will increase, and it has been. Just last year, just in the western US, 9 million acres burned up. That was the more forest that had ever burned since they started keeping records. The IPCC says that that amount of Boreal forest burning up in western Canada has doubled in the past 20 years. We have to take this seriously. It’s not new, but it’s getting worse.

  9. I have been sorely disappointed by the lack of commentary on the contribution of climate change to this fire which, despite several heavily misinformed opinions below, is undeniable – this article was pleasantly refreshing. To those who still doubt climate change, you are just wrong, and you are actually fatally wrong. The facts are that 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is real and human caused. The anti-climate change propaganda floating about is produced by a handful of ideological-driven people – largely funded by the fossil fuel industry, and if you don’t believe that, please look up the details of the New York Vs Exxon Mobile lawsuit. And you can believe whatever you want, but when you vote against a switch to green energy technologies, you are going to be causing more Fort McMurrays. We are already almost too late – we cannot afford any more delay. We have to demand IMMEDIATE action on climate change from government and business at every level or Fort Mac is not going to be the last city in Alberta to burn up. It may not even be the last one this season. Ontario shutdown all it’s coal fired power plants within 5 years. We could at least start there.

    • No one in their right mind is denying climate change. However, any forestry grad will tell you that fires of this size are not unusual in the north, exacerbated by the impact of modern fire fighting which circumvents the natural burn off of undergrowth. As far as this early, May has always been prime season for fires there to the unending sunlight at this time of year. Encouraged by your call to have the heaviest resource consuming province to do their part in curbing their consumption of fossil fuels.

  10. Climate change…. Yes the climate is changing, it always has, CO2 makes up 33 molecules of every 85000 in our atmosphere, 32 are from nature, 1 from humans. 1!!!! Now you climate-tards need to start doing your homework and not blaming a stupid term like “climate change” for every thing that happens on this earth that is not agreeable to you! I for one am very much against pollution like heavy metals going into our water, the poisoning of the pacific ocean from fukushima and the fracking mainly taking place in the USA. CO2 causing climate change is like saying a flood was caused because you pee’d in the ocean! Time to put these idiots in their place and shut them up, you all fell for the lobbyists of the oil industry telling you pipelines were bad for the environment like a bunch of suckers while the USA was producing pipelines at record rates to sell their oil to those potential customers of ours! Canada produces the cleanest oil of ALL major oil producing nations and if you CARE about the environment you would actually want ALL of it produced here!!! There are families in need in Fort Mcmurray and Mcleans has turned into a climate change tabloid pile of garbage! I hope your magazine burns to a crisp you scientifically inept MORONS!

    • The fire in Slave Lake was due to arson and given that Fort Mac had no rain, it is very possible that this fire was also due to human error. If climate change causes increased lightening strikes and an earlier and longer fire season, how is a fire in May caused by a human being due to climate change? Please explain.

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