Climate change plays 'major role' in wildfires, study shows. But Alberta's premier says it's 'complex'

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney responds to criticism that repealing the carbon tax means the province is doing less to fight climate change during an extreme wildfire season.

With 10,000 people displaced and 16 homes destroyed by Alberta’s wildfires so far this year, Premier Jason Kenney found himself answering questions Friday about his government’s decision to kill the carbon tax the day prior.

With the tax gone, his government is still committed to a levy on major industrial emitters and a technology and research fund to focus on reducing emissions.

Asked whether the wildfires can be linked to climate change, Kenney said: “I think the reason for any particular forest fire is often complex.”

WATCH: Jason Kenney says reasons for forest fires are complex, not just climate change

Kenney said climate change is real, and that it can “prolong the dry season and things like that,” though he also said that North America experienced “huge forest fires” before there was human activity.

Such fires would “replace dead wood and fuel and old forests with regenerative forests,” he said.

As for the carbon tax, he said it “didn’t stop forest fires in B.C. or in Alberta,” that his province has “always had forest fires.”

READ MORE: Alberta provincial carbon tax dead, as federal tax looms

There are, indeed, numerous factors that contribute to forest fires.

But anthropogenic climate change is one of them, said an academic study released by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) earlier this year.

That study shows that B.C.’s wildfires might not have been as destructive, had it not been for human influence on the climate.

WATCH: New photos shed light on toll wildfires are taking on northern Alberta

The research, which was published in the academic journal Earth’s Future, focused on blazes that took place during B.C.’s record-breaking 2017 fire season.

The study found that “extreme summer temperatures during the 2017 B.C. forest fire season were made over 20 times more likely by human-induced climate change.”

Researchers also found that “extreme high temperatures combined with dry conditions increase the likelihood of wildfire ignition and spread.”

READ MORE: 10,000 people forced out, 16 homes destroyed by Alberta wildfires

Scientists with ECCC and the University of Victoria derived their findings using climate model historical simulations that focused on the Southern Cordillera homogenous fire regime zone, an area located in British Columbia.

This region is known for seeing both “ground and crown (canopy) fires that influence the distribution of species and forest characteristics.”

The scientists also carried out an “event attribution,” a method that compares the “probability of occurrence of an event” between one scenario that involves human-caused factors, and another with lesser human influence.

WATCH: 10,000 people forced out, 15 homes destroyed by Alberta wildfires

So they looked at two periods: the years 1961 to 1970 represented the time with lesser human impacts, and the years 2011 to 2020 represent current conditions.

Much of the planet’s warming has happened since the 1970s, they noted.

The months of July to August 2017 were “anomalously hot and dry” in the Southern Cordillera, “ranking first in both characteristics in a time series beginning in 1961,” the study said.

READ MORE: Why does the sky look yellow during a wildfire?

Human influences likely contributed to 96 per cent of the probability of this event, it added.

Human, or anthropogenic, factors could have increased the likelihood of extreme warmth that year by over 20 times, the study went on to say.

Further analysis found that the probability of burned area increased with the inclusion of human-influenced climate change.

WATCH: May 30 — Wildfire smoke envelopes Alberta’s capital  

The study found that the amount of area burned in 2017 was in approximately the 99th percentile of the current decade and that it was seven to 11 times bigger than it might have been without as much human influence on the environment.

“An alternate interpretation is that 86 to 91 per cent of the area burned in 2017 can be attributed to anthropogenic climate change,” the study read.

“Additionally, anthropogenic climate change has greatly increased the frequency with which such an event can be expected to occur.”

READ MORE: Alberta wildfires — evacuation alerts and orders in place across the province

The scientists concluded that burned area like B.C. witnessed in 2017 can be “expected to become more likely in the future.”

Indeed, they noted that more area burned in the 2018 fire season than in the previous year.

“It can be inferred that extreme warm conditions that, along with extreme dryness, contribute to high wildfire potential were made more likely by anthropogenic influence on the climate,” researchers wrote.

A helicopter drops a bucket of water on the Chuckegg Creek wildfire west of High Level, Alta., in a Saturday, May 25, 2019, handout photo.

A helicopter drops a bucket of water on the Chuckegg Creek wildfire west of High Level, Alta., in a Saturday, May 25, 2019, handout photo.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Government of Alberta, Chris Schwarz

In addressing questions about climate change, Kenney suggested that “huge patches of very old forests” could be contributing to the fires.

Those trees, he said, are located in areas that haven’t seen a blaze in nearly 100 years.

Queen’s University Prof. Edward Sruzik of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy backed up Kenney’s assertions to an extent.

“We have done such a good job of suppressing fires for so long that we have a lot of trees in our forest, in the arboreal forest, those trees are born to burn,” he said in an interview with Global News.

“They can’t regrow unless there’s a fire there to open up their cones and throw out the seeds.”

However, he also cited climate change as a contributor to the fires.

“With every one-degree increase in temperature, you have about 12 per cent more lightning,” Sruzik said.

“So it all adds up for more fires burning bigger, hotter, and more often down the road.”

WATCH: May 30 — Good Samaritans help rescue livestock out of path of Alberta wildfires

Climate change may not cause forest fires alone but the research is clear when it suggests human influences are helping to make them bigger, more intense and destructive.

B.C.’s carbon tax, introduced in 2008, didn’t stop devastating forest fires from taking place.

But it did precede a drop in the province’s emissions by 2.2 per cent, lessening human impact on the environment.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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