lead 960Perfect storm

The massive wildfire that destroyed parts of Fort McMurray has raised many questions and led to more than one or two intense public debates. How did this happen? How did the fire start? How did it get out of control? How was it able to enter Fort McMurray? Was there more that could have been done from the stand point of wildfire management? What were the roles of climate change and El Niño? These are just some of the questions people have been asking in the aftermath of the evacuation.

One of the sharpest debates that arose on the wildfire was around the question of climate change. While this question tends to arise when any natural disaster makes the news, the fact that a natural disaster in the form of a wildfire struck Fort McMurray, the center of the oil sands industry, put this question clearly in the foreground. With the added intensity of the political situation in Alberta, this debate erupted with particular ferocity.

Debates on climate change often polarize shockingly quickly, and this one was no different. A hard line tends to be drawn quickly as the various sides are divided between those who deny climate change entirely and those who expound climate doom. In this type of situation rational scientific debate is lost, often replaced with fervent bias, and often for as little as the scoring of political points.

With a mild winter, dry spring and record temperatures in the Fort McMurray area, a perfect storm of conditions had developed whereby the wildfire developed “beyond all control efforts”. In addition to issues related to climate change, El Niño, changing demographics, and changes in the wildland-urban interface, which we will discuss further below, there was a confluence of local conditions in the boreal forest surrounding Fort McMurray that led to the disaster.

Firstly, it should be understood that fire is a natural and necessary element in the boreal forest ecosystem. As a recent article in the Calgary Herald explained, the trees in the Fort McMurray area “have adapted over time to depend on fire for growth”.

wildfires mapThe 2012 Flat Top Complex Wildfire Review Committee report, drafted in response to 2011 wildfire season in Alberta, explains that this adaptation to fire often lends itself to large and intense wildfires.

“Wildfire is a natural part of the life cycle of the boreal forest; many of the vegetation species, including trees, are well adapted to large, intense wildfires. These boreal wildfires typically burn as “crown fires”, and are responsible for most of the area burned in the boreal forests of North America, Europe and Asia. Intense wildfires consume forest canopy and can spread from treetop to treetop, releasing huge quantities of sparks, smoke and other gases.”

As Canadian Forest Service researcher Tim Lynham explained in a recent Maclean’s article, other factors include a warm and dry spring that arrived early, the fact that the trees were just beginning to green, as well as the dead vegetation from the previous year. With humidity at around 10 per cent and temperatures soaring above 30 degrees Celsius (known as a crossover when the relative humidity expressed as a percentage is lower than the recorded temperature in degrees Celsius), it was a perfect recipe for an intense and dangerous fire.

Once the fire grew to a certain size it was impossible for firefighters to control. Once the fight against the fire reached this level, there really was no hope in trying to stop it from entering the city.

Budget cuts

One serious issue has been raised in relation to the Fort McMurray wildfire. Did the NDP government’s cuts to the province’s wildfire management budget play a role in the events surrounding the wildfire? Were the cuts responsible for the fire ravaging parts of Fort McMurray?

When the Notley government presented its budget in mid-April, just a few weeks before the Fort McMurray wildfire, it included some $15 million in cuts to the wildfire management budget. The budget reduction involved $5.1 million in cuts to air tanker contracts and $9.6 million in cuts to the base wildfire management budget. The cuts seemed to come at a particularly odd time, with the wildfire season starting early and as wildfire experts had been projecting the potential for a bad year for wildfires.

The entire scenario played right into the hands of the right wing. Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean wasted no time to fearmonger and launched an attack on the government over the budget cuts, accusing it of “playing chicken with Mother Nature.” Wildrose, which had been screaming for deep cuts in the budget, lamented that “This is the only real cut in the budget,” and asked, “Has the Premier found a way to mandate fewer fires, or is this just government's new policy to let Alberta burn?”

With the response of the Wildrose leader to the budget cuts we can see the origin of one of the myths surrounding the fire peddled by the right wing. The right wing began arguing that the Notley government was indeed responsible for the devastation in Fort McMurray and had doomed the city by cutting the firefighting budget, more than implying that the cuts had resulted in a shortage of resources in the face of the fire and indicating that had the budget not been cut then the fire could have been stopped before entering Fort McMurray.

But as the Edmonton Journal explained, “In a PR nightmare for the ages, Premier Rachel Notley did indeed slash $5.3-million from the Alberta firefighting budget only weeks before the most devastating forest fire in the province’s history. But the cut was an accounting cock-up, rather than a real-world kneecapping of Alberta’s firefighters. Firefighting money is emergency funding; it’s virtually unlimited in times of disaster. What the budget did was lowball what the final bill was going to be when the firefighting season ended. Water tanker contracts were shortened, but that won’t come into play until August. And fire preparation budgets did take a small hit, but when it comes to a fire that can jump the Athabasca River, there’s only so much a few more fire breaks could have done — particularly when the budget was only tabled last month.”

In defending the cuts, Notley explained that it was a “simple budgetary practice” whereby the province sets aside a baseline amount for funding, with the Edmonton Journal explaining, “with the understanding [that] firefighting efforts are covered in the province’s emergency budget.” Notley added that, “In no way, shape or form are we suggesting that we wouldn’t put every bit of resources that are required to ensure that fires are appropriately fought as they arise. This is the way these kinds of emergent and non-predictable costs are typically budgeted.”

As mentioned in the article, the province spent $375 million fighting wildfires last year, with none of that money being set aside in the budget. That money came from emergency funding. Notley explained that in relation to this year’s budget, "All that happened is a high level of expenditure engaged last year because of the high level of fires was reduced back to the normal amount.”

Just a few weeks later, as the fire was burning in Fort McMurray, Wildrose again launched another attack insinuating that the fire was able to enter the city as a result of a lack of firefighting resources on the ground due to the budget cuts.

Alberta Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier explained that “the government will pull funds from a wildfire emergency fund if allocated baseline dollars run dry,” and stated that “overall resources remain the same this year”, indicating that the cuts were related to “savings found in administration”.

Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee stated that “the budget cuts had no effect on the fire” and added, “This has nothing to do with the reduction whatsoever. Every single resource that was necessary to be there for the fire has been there from the very beginning and will continue to be.”

In the same article she also explained that, “No matter what kind of human intervention would have been in place in this particular scenario, the combination of all those natural characteristics formed the disaster, and we’re doing our best to ensure everybody’s safety and minimize damage.”

While not arguing for or defending the cuts, and while it remains to be seen whether the administrative cuts had anything to do with resource management in face of the fire, what this all appears to mean is that the cuts didn't impact the resources on the ground for the spring wildfire season and did not impact how the fire in Fort McMurray was initially managed. The cuts also aren't impacting the continued fight against the fire now, because once an emergency is declared the budget goes out the window.

Many various experts seem to agree that no matter the budget cuts, given the size and the intensity of the fire, there simply was not much that could have been done to stop the devastation of Fort McMurray.

In a Maclean’s interview, Alex Pavcek, deputy chief of Lesser Slave Lake Fire Department, explained the following when asked about a common misconception about wildfires, “I think people, looking at a lot of social media, think that money and manpower is going to solve the problem. If it’s going to burn through your town, it’s going to burn through your town. You can put 500 people in front of it and you’re not going to stop it. There’s this thing about [how] the government cut $15 million from wildfire fighting last year. You can have $20 million, and it’s not going to change what’s happened. You can have the biggest airplanes with the biggest water tanks. The fire is going to do what it’s going to do.”

In an article in The Guardian, Alberta’s wildfire prevention manager explained, “No amount of tankers or resources, or no size of firebreak, could have prevented it from hitting the community that day. Sometimes Mother Nature is going to do what it wants to do and bad things happen.”

05 06 newfireNatural disasters

While as a society we have some ability to control small wildfires, under the right conditions even a small and apparently manageable fire can expand quickly and escape the control of firefighting crews, leaving us helpless in the face of nature’s power. Major wildfires need to be seen in the same context as other potentially disastrous natural events – such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, floods, and tornados, etc. What the Fort McMurray wildfire really shows us is just how vulnerable we are as a society in the face of natural disasters.

In a recent article on the University of Alberta website Mike Flannigan, a Professor at the University of Alberta and Director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science, a climate scientist and wildfire expert who has been interviewed extensively around the issue of the wildfire, explained the following:

“The Fort McMurray wildfire shows just how quickly and unpredictably a blaze can rage out of control.  On May 2, the day before the mandatory evacuation order, the wildfire was estimated at 500 to 750 hectares and thought to be ‘laying low’ outside the city with officials hopeful it would be spared altogether. By the morning of May 3, fuelled by a shift in 40-kilometre-per-hour winds, the fire had doubled to 2,600 hectares. That grew to 7,500 hectares by the morning of May 4 and 85,000 the following morning.  By May 6, it had jumped to 101,000 hectares—a raging ‘crown fire’ that can’t be controlled without rain.”

Over the past week the fire reached some 580,000 hectares and poses serious problems in terms of fighting and managing it. As the U of A article explains:

“When fires get large enough, they get so big and intense they create their own weather, sucking in the wind and increasing its speed all on its own, Flannigan explains.

“Through a rare phenomenon called pyrocumulonimbus, the Fort McMurray fire is even generating thunderstorms and lightning that are sparking new fires. Additionally, sparks and embers from the fire can travel great distances in windy conditions, creating small fires or ‘spots’ elsewhere (up to two kilometres in Slave Lake), allowing it to jump roads or even rivers, he adds.

“Faced with that kind of intensity and unpredictability, tackling it from the front, or head, is impossible, so firefighters must mount an attack from the sides and rear, Flannigan says. Water bombers can concentrate on the fire’s head, but again only to a certain point of intensity before it becomes unsafe.

“With a fire of this magnitude, air drops of water and retardant have little impact. Firefighters can only steer and direct the fire, strategically using water and retardant and earth-moving equipment to protect structures of strategic importance, such as Fort McMurray’s airport, so the fire pushes forward in another direction.

“‘Instead of trying to stop the whole thing, which you can’t do, I’m going to try and tackle this little corner,’ Flannigan says.”

In an article that recently appeared in the Edmonton Journal penned by Flannigan himself, along with Mike Wotton (a Research Scientist with Natural Resources Canada-Canadian Forest Service and an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto), the authors explain some of misperceptions in relation to wildfire management.

“Herein lies one of the misperceptions of wildfire and suppression. We have developed tools and techniques for fighting fire, from hand tools to aircraft dropping thousands of gallons of water or specially designed retardant, and science-based technology to monitor and predict fire growth. These advances are one reason so many fires (more than 90 per cent) stay small and out of the news. But when the weather gets hot, dry and windy, even the most powerful tools have little influence on where a fire wants to go and what it wants to burn. During these periods of extreme fire intensity, direct management options become extremely limited until the weather changes.”

Once the fire reaches this level of intensity and size, there is really nothing that can be done to stop it or put it out. Fire crews battling the fire in Alberta will not be able to stop the fire without some significant help from the weather. The fire crews can try to manage and direct the fire to protect communities and infrastructure, but they won’t be able to put it out no matter the resources thrown its way and no matter the budget.

This, however, is not to say that human activity has no bearing on forest fires.

Wildfire suppression

The historic role of wildfire suppression itself is playing a significant role in the development of the Fort McMurray wildfire and the Alberta wildfire regime in general. In the U of A article it was explained that, “In years past, all wildfires were tackled the same way: trying to suppress the flames by any means necessary. In modern wildfire management, wildfires are classified as wanted or unwanted—a determination Flannigan likens to ‘fire triage.’ If a wildfire breaks out in an uninhabited area and fire growth modelling shows little risk to settlement, it’s monitored and allowed to burn so the boreal forest can renew itself.”

The 2012 Flat Top Complex Wildfire Review Committee report, explains that in the early 1970s, “more than half of Alberta’s boreal forest was deemed to be young, with about a third immature, five per cent mature and a small portion deemed ‘overmature’. By 2011, that had changed to less than 10 per cent young, about a quarter immature, more than 40 per cent mature, and more than 20 per cent overmature.”

The report itself states “Before major wildfire suppression programs, boreal forests historically burned on an average cycle ranging from 50 to 200 years as a result of lightning and human-caused wildfires. Wildfire suppression has significantly reduced the area burned in Alberta’s boreal forest. However, due to reduced wildfire activity, forests of Alberta are aging, which ultimately changes ecosystems and is beginning to increase the risk of large and potentially costly catastrophic wildfires.”

The science behind wildfires is extraordinarily complex, i.e. it is both complicated and one of the fields where it is studied most is complexity studies. Recent studies, without discounting the role of climate change, are pointing to human development patterns as significant elements in wildfires. Human activity, in terms of wildfire suppression, but also in relation to changing demographics and changes to the wildland-urban interface, have played a direct role in terms of the fire.

One California-based fire ecology specialist recently explained that “There is widespread agreement about the importance of climate on wildfire at relatively broad scales. At more local scales, however, you can get the story quite wrong if you don’t include human development patterns.”

A recent report by the Alberta Emergency Management Agency explains that “Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, and often is necessary for forest renewal and growth. However, since Albertans are increasingly moving into forested regions as a place to live, work, and play, the threat from uncontrolled fires becomes greater. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Wildland Urban Interface Zone. The Wildland Urban Interface Zone is that area of Alberta that is neither completely built up, nor completely undisturbed. As such, it is an area that if not properly protected can act as the means of transmission of wildfires from pristine rural areas

into heavily populated urban zones, or vice versa.”

Mike Flannigan recently explained “Fire happens in the boreal forest. Every year, thousands of small fires and dozens of large ones occur somewhere in Canada’s vast forest landscape. This is not in itself a problem. More than ever people work, build, live and play in the boreal forest; nowhere is this more clearly evident than in Alberta. This in itself is not a problem either. But disaster can occur when people and fire intersect.”

The climate change debate

The public debate around climate science and climate change has almost entirely lost its utility, which is lamentable given the importance of these issues. As the public debate rages on, it increasingly leaves the realm of science and moves into the realm of belief and faith. It is very rare indeed to find balanced articles on the question, with the science of climate usually either being grossly overstated or understated, used for the scoring of political points, and more often than not completely misunderstood.

One of the best examples of this was the controversy surrounding the comments made by Tom Moffatt, a former NDP candidate and employee of the Town of Taber who said that the fire was “karmic”. He tweeted “Karmic #climatechange fire burns CDN oilsands city…” His explanation and apology for his comments weren’t really much better, and in the end he found himself suspended from his job as a result of public pressure.

Others tried to help him or made similar arguments by explaining that the fire was “ironic”. This fit in with other arguments on social media that this was “Mother Nature’s revenge” on the city and inhabitants of Fort McMurray for the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands industry in the area. One tweet that made the rounds read “I’m glad the #FortMacFire is happening in the province most responsible for the climate change that caused the fire in the first place.” Aside from the other problems with such sentiments, the sheer callousness of these comments is startling.

These types of arguments, while certainly poetic (if not showing a total misunderstanding of the words “karma” and “ironic”, not to mention other concepts), are not scientifically accurate and are not very useful at all. They totally fail to make a distinction between the oil barons who own and control oil production, and the oil workers who are exploited and have no say in the process of oil production. The oil barons make fantastic profits at the expense of the environment and while mercilessly exploiting the oil workers. This cannot be forgotten. It would make more sense to engage the people of Fort McMurray in a dialogue and try to explain the consequences of this class contradiction and the dangers to the environment rather than accuse them of responsibility.

Furthermore, it should go without saying that “Mother Nature”, the planet and the biosphere, are not conscious entities and certainly don’t have a penchant for vengeance. What these comments reveal more than anything is the belief of some of those on the environmental-end of the political spectrum that the people of Fort McMurray should be punished for their role in climate change – and for their perceived denial of climate change. The fire that hit Fort McMurray was not “punishment”, “revenge”, and it wasn’t “ironic” in any sense of the word. “Mother Nature” does not choose her victims. The Fort McMurray wildfire was a tragic catastrophe and a cruel coincidence.

Climate science and the wildfire

What is the connection between climate change and the Fort McMurray wildfire? As Oscar Wilde once put it - the truth is rarely pure and never simple.

Trying to make a connection between climate change and specific natural events, i.e. such as the Fort McMurray wildfire, is scientifically unsupportable. Firstly, it must be understood that climate science is, generally at least, the long-term and large-scale study and analysis of atmospheric and other environmental changes. Climate change is not the science of specific events – it is the science of long-term trends.

Furthermore, climate science is to a large degree a science of statistics, and it should also be understood that you can’t necessarily draw specific conclusions about a specific event from general statistical trends. What climate science can tell us is that as a result of climate change we may expect to see more (or fewer) events of a given type, but it cannot yet say that any particular event was “caused by climate change” or that it was necessarily “made worse by climate change”.

An article in Nature a few years ago looked into the “emerging science of ‘climate attribution’”. One of the current problems in attributing specific events to climate change are that “it currently rests on a comparison of the probability of an observed weather event in the real world with that of the ‘same’ event in a hypothetical world without global warming”.

Given our current level of scientific technique, this is going to be very difficult to do. But that is not to say that it is a waste of time to try. Our current level of science is improving, and there are serious efforts underway in the development of the science of climate attribution.  

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report on extreme climate events in 2011 stated that “explaining the causes of specific extreme events in near-real time is severely stretching the current state of the science.”

The article explained the problem in the following way using a statistics-based sports analogy:

“One analogy of the effects of climate change on extreme weather is with a baseball player (or to choose another sport, a cricketer) who starts taking steroids and afterwards hits on average 20% more home runs (or sixes) in a season than he did before (Meehl 2012). For any one of his home runs (sixes) during the years the player was taking steroids, you would not know for sure whether it was caused by steroids or not. But you might be able to attribute his increased number to the steroids. And given that steroids have resulted in a 20% increased chance that any particular swing of the player’s bat results in a home run (or a six), you would be able to make an attribution statement that, all other things being equal, steroid use had increased the probability of that particular occurrence by 20%.The job of the attribution assessment is to distinguish the effects of anthropogenic climate change or some other external factor (steroids in the sporting analogy) from natural variability (e.g., in the baseball analogy, the player’s natural ability to hit home runs or the configuration of a particular stadium).”

The paper studied particular climate events in 2011 and attempted to establish some initial methodologies for climate attribution. One of the conclusions made as a result of the studies was as follows:

“But even if human influence is making a particular type of event more likely on average, because of natural variability it does not necessarily follow that its likelihood is greater every year. So while it has been argued that in the anthropocene [the anthropocene is the most recent geological era in which human activities have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems (Crutzen 2002) – explanatory note provided as footnote in the original] all extreme weather or climate events that occur are altered by human influence on climate (Trenberth 2011), and although it is difficult to prove that a particular extreme weather or climate event was not in some way influenced by climate change, this does not mean that climate change can be blamed for every extreme weather or climate event. After all, there has always been extreme weather.”

The above quotes do not mean that we know nothing scientifically on this subject, but they do show the limits placed on what we can and do currently know. The science of climate attribution is moving forward, and there is reason to be optimistic:

“While much work remains to be done in attribution science, to develop better observational datasets, to improve methodologies, to make further progress in understanding and to assess and improve climate models, the contributions in this article demonstrate the potential that already exists for meaningful assessments of the connection between specific extreme weather or climate events that occurred in a particular year and climate change. Whether readers react with excitement at the possibilities already demonstrated, or with irritation at the gaps and limitations still present, our hope as editors is that this initial selection of investigations encourages further development of the capability to produce timely and reliable assessments of recent extreme weather or climate events… By developing the scientific underpinning, the ability to put recent extreme weather or climate events into the longer-term context of climate change should improve as each year goes by.”

The way the question is being posed in the corporate media today, mainly for the scoring of political points, is not really a scientific way of looking at the question, as Mike Flannigan pointed out, “Asking if this fire was caused by climate change is the wrong question. We know the things that influence fire, including weather and climate. Day-to-day fire management relies on this knowledge and has for decades. We know that, as the climate changes over the next century, fuels will be drier and weather will be more conducive to fire ignition and spread. Was this fire the result of climate change? It doesn’t matter. Alberta’s, and Canada’s, future environment will be shaped by climate change. The important question is, how do we continue to live with fire.”

The problem is that wildfires, even very large intense ones, would still occur even if we could somehow remove climate change from the equation entirely, making the attribution of specific causes behind any one fire or event scientifically difficult. The real question, as Flannigan argued, is what are we going to do about it, and how are we going to achieve it?

Climate change, El Niño, and wildfires

El Niño is a perfect example of how the climate change debate, in the media at least, becomes polarized on the basis of bias and belief – often dictated by the need for scoring political points. The issue of El Niño in relation to this spring and summer was not really controversial until after the fire had devastated Fort McMurray and the climate change debate started.

El Niño is a notoriously difficult issue in the realm of climate science. A recent article explained some of the issues:

“Scientists know that El Niño contributes to an increase in global temperatures. But do rising global and ocean temperatures, in turn, intensify El Niño?

“The science here is as yet inconclusive. One 2014 study suggests that super El Niño events could double in the future due to climate change. Using 20 climate models to examine possible changes in El Niño over the next 100 years, the scientists projected that extreme El Niño events could occur roughly every 10 years instead of every 20.

“Lisa Goddard, director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, finds the study interesting, but questions its conclusions because observational evidence of El Niño only goes back a few decades, whereas scientists know that there is a great deal of natural variation in El Niño events over long periods of time. Moreover, said Goddard, ‘The models have limitations in their representation of El Niño and its variability.’

“Other climate models differ in their assessment of future El Niño events. Some suggest the ENSO cycle will become more intense, others say it will weaken, and some find there will be little change. According to Schmidt [Gavin Schmidt, climate scientist and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies], ‘There is a very large variation in ENSO statistics (frequency/magnitude) over time, and so detecting a shift due to climate change is very challenging. Models as a whole are all over the shop, and so it doesn't fill one with great confidence.’”

Prior to the start of the Fort McMurray fire, scientists had been warning that El Niño would result in a much higher risk of wildfires this year. Mike Flannigan, the go-to expert on the issue of climate and wildfires in Alberta and quoted extensively above, has also explained the impact of El Niño on the wildfire regime.

When reading the various interviews and articles in the press with these and other climate scientists, you can see they are trying to speak consistently, carefully and accurately. However, one can also see that they are trying to give accurate and nuanced scientific responses to loaded questions from journalists. Most scientists don’t want to be on the wrong end of a quote or bad sound bite, and most don’t want to be taken advantage of for political purposes.

The problem then begins when ideology and bias begin to replace genuine scientific inquiry. We get one-sided articles in the Edmonton Journal overstating the role of El Niño that rely on the opinion of one scientist to claim that “global warming wasn’t the main culprit in the Fort McMurray wildfire. Instead, Roundy [Paul Roundy of the University at Albany] blames El Niño, a weather phenomenon that’s been around for ages.”

But what Roundy had actually said, in a blog and not a scientific paper, was “"Climate change is unlikely to explain the specific timing of this event in April to May, instead natural variability associated with an extreme El Niño event likely enhanced the dry warm conditions that generated the extreme fire we’ve seen in central Canada.”

Of course, climate change deniers of all stripes then jump all over these quotes and misuse them, which irks those of all stripes on the other side of the debate and the whole thing descends into the absurd arguments we see every time a new study is released or each time a natural disaster strikes and hits the news.

Eventually we get Naomi Klein saying that “This is, yes, El Niño, but it is El Niño supercharged with climate change. That’s why temperature records are being broken all around the world.”

Upon what scientific basis is she basing this opinion? We know that the science behind the relationship between El Niño and climate change is inconclusive. There is as yet no consensus in terms of modelling or amongst climate scientists on this relationship. There has been one study in 2014 in which the authors “present climate modelling evidence for a doubling in the occurrences in the future in response to greenhouse warming.” But this says nothing about a “supercharged El Niño” this year.

In any case, this is just one study amongst many others, which are often contradictory, and as John Oliver recently explained, it is not scientific to cherry pick one study to try to prove a scientific fact, or in the case of Naomi Klein, opinion – if indeed she was basing her statements on a recent study.

Mike Flannigan recently explained the role of climate science and climate change in relation to the fire:

“In nearly every interview with journalists, Flannigan is asked whether the Fort McMurray wildfire is the result of climate change. The answer is unfailingly consistent—and careful.

“‘I never like to attribute a single event to climate change,’ Flannigan explains into his speaker phone to a U.S.-based reporter.

“What he does attribute to climate change is the amount of area burned each year, which has more than doubled since the early 1970s. ‘This is a result of human-caused climate change. There’s a lot of year-to-year variability with area burned, but we have doubled.’

“The warmer it gets, the more fire we get due to increased evaporation and evapotranspiration, he explains, with the atmosphere drawing off moisture from trees and shrubs. According to research Flannigan published earlier this year in Climatic Change, for every degree in warming, 15 per cent more precipitation is needed to offset the risk of wildfire from drying fuel. Research published in Science in 2014 also associated every degree in warming with a 12 per cent increase in lightning activity—‘more lightning, more fire.’

“‘Fires are a natural part of the boreal forest, so we see fires all the time. With climate change, we’re just seeing more of them and the fire seasons are starting earlier,’ Flannigan explains. ‘And at times they can be more severe, and more intense.’

“That’s already translated into longer fire seasons than historical norms. Fire season in Alberta now starts March 1, a month earlier than in the past, and his modelling predicts the fire season will lengthen by three weeks over the next 85 years.

“Flannigan cautions not every year will be bad for wildfires, noting there’s a lot of year-to-year variability by region. Quebec was hit hard in 2013, the Northwest Territories in 2014 and Saskatchewan and Alberta in 2015. Some years will be cold and wet, but over time the number of bad fires per decade could double by 2050, he predicts. That means more area burned.

‘What does the future look like? If things continue as they have and these models are close to what may happen … I would expect another doubling of area burned.’

Complexity and self-organized criticality

We also know from self-organized criticality (SOC) studies that the distribution and occurrence of wildfires are inherently stochastic. Studies from the field of chaos and complexity have shown that wildfires have a power-law distribution that may be analyzed statistically but cannot be predicted precisely.

Mark Buchanan, in his book Ubiquity on complexity and SOC studies, devotes several sections to the study of wildfires in terms of chaos and complexity studies. In describing the Malamud study on the self-organized critical behavior of forest fires he explains:

“Malamud and colleagues ran a number of simulations, and in each counted how many times they saw fires that burned off a given area of the grid. There were, as in real forests, many more small fires than large. But beyond the mere qualitative agreement, the model also gave rise to a near-perfect power law” (Ubiquity, page 89).

What is the significance of the power law distribution? Buchanan explains:

“Recall that a power law, with its scale invariant form, implies that large events are just magnified copies of smaller ones, and arise from the same kinds of causes. Really big earthquakes are not triggered by special events, but are simply the natural if infrequent consequence of the overall critical organisation of the earth’s crust, and its susceptibility to long-range chain reactions. The Cornell researchers found that the same thing seems to be true for forest fires, not only in the USA but also in Australia, and presumably everywhere on earth. When a fire starts, ‘it doesn’t yet know how big it will become.’ Fires spread as they do because any forest has the organisation of the critical state, and how far any particular fire goes is largely a matter of chance” (Ubiquity, page 88).

Buchanan even discusses the old wildfire suppression technique of “zero tolerance” where historically an attempt was made to put out any spotted fire.

As he explains:

“One of the unintended effects of this programme was that the forests began ageing. Old trees were not replaced by younger trees, and the natural evolution of the forest’s materials changed. Dead wood, grass and twigs, brush, bark and leaves accumulated, and as a result, the forests moved away from the natural critical state. The trouble is that the fires are an indispensable component of the natural dynamics that keep forests in that state, so by suppressing them, the forests have instead been driven into an even more unstable state, a supercritical state, with a high density of burnable material everywhere. Mother Nature has, as one writer commented, ‘hidden the equivalent of a doomsday device’ in the forest. ‘The protected woods have built up an enormous fuel load of downed and standing dead trees and limbs, flammable underbrush and grass… a single lightning strike or cigarette butt can explode into mass fire.’” (Ubiquity, page 91)

He goes on to explain a more scientific approach to wildfire management that allows for the “natural” renewal of the forest:

“Consequently, forest managers are no longer trying to control the small and intermediate-sized fires. Indeed, they now even set prescribed and managed burns in order to keep the fuel from building up. Fires of intermediate size remove some of the dangerous dead wood from the forest. In analogy with the forest-fire game, they reduce the density of paths along which the fire can spread, and so make it more difficult for a tiny disturbance to trigger large-scale disaster.” (Ubiquity, page 92)

Complexity and SOC studies are still in their infancy. As it turns out, SOC may not be able to adequately account for shifts and transitions in wildfire regimes, and does not take enough account of external drivers that affect regional and inter-regional variability in wildfire distribution. A very interesting study, marking a development in ecology and complexity studies as well as the scientific study of wildfires, specifically looked at shifts in wildfire regimes in Canada:

“We present here a model in which fire spread is represented as a stochastic propagation process—a birth-death process of burning grid cells—providing a phenomenological representation of the many regional factors, such as weather, topography, and vegetation, that influence its reproductive success. We show that this model, and therefore the two main processes of a stochastic fire spread and an ecological memory of previous fires in the fuel mosaic, can account for the complete variation of exponents observed across the ecoregions of Canada. We demonstrate that this seemingly small modification of existing models leads to fundamentally different predictions from SOC on the sensitivity of wildfire regimes to changes in external drivers. Specifically, this new model suggests the existence of a drastic transition rather than a gradual one from moderately to strongly fire-driven ecosystems. By contrast to SOC, the model implies that ecoregions that are currently close to this transition will be sensitive to changes in the environment and human interventions affecting fire propagation, such as are expected with climate change. Power-law-like patterns emerge at a specific critical point or threshold and degenerate in a characteristic way as one moves away from it. We show how the qualitative understanding gained from our model can be used to classify wildfire regimes as subcritical, critical, or supercritical and to identify regions that are close to this critical point. We identify such regions for Canada and end with a discussion of other critical phenomena in ecology, especially the epidemic dynamics of infectious diseases.”

Climate science and self-organized criticality themselves are just beginning to meet scientifically. This is an important step in the progress of science to be sure, but also an indication of some of the unknowns we are dealing with when talking about either one, either together or separately.

Large intense wildfires can occur in any particularly dry season, but it stands to reason that as a result of climate change, climate variability and other elements including human activity, we will see more events like this in the future. Complexity studies help us to comprehend the mechanisms of fire propagation itself. The transition from one type of critical state to another in a given wildfire regime appears to be a key component in the average size and intensity of fires as well as the distribution of wildfire events, and climate change, climate variability and human activity can play a role, particularly during these transition periods. But this is also identifying a long-term statistical trend, not identifying the individual factors in specific fires, something which as yet would be “stretching the state of the science”.

shutterstock 226127107The human impact

In this situation, there are five or six extremely complex elements that determined the intensity of this particular fire in Fort McMurray. This list is not exhaustive and doesn’t do the complexity of the situation justice, but the elements could be listed as climate change, natural climate variability, El Niño, changes in the wildland-urban interface, human-driven fire suppression techniques, urban and population expansion and dynamics, and shifts and transitions in the various critical states of wildfire regimes, etc.

Given our current level of scientific technique, we can identify the major factors but just don't know enough and do not have the mathematical language to state with any accuracy what role each one of these elements played in this particular fire. We are gaining a significant understanding of the general statistical trends, but stating with any accuracy to what degree any of these elements was responsible for the size and intensity of this specific fire is beyond what we can state scientifically.

We would need to be able to separate all the various causes from effects, ascribe to them mathematical values, and map out how each one caused and affected all the other causes and effects. We do not yet have the scientific ability to do this, but to be sure, each new advance in the various scientific fields brings us towards a more complete understanding. These are the very limits imposed on our knowledge by chaotic and complex systems.

In the language of Marxist philosophy our advances in scientific knowledge in these fields mean that these various elements are transforming from “things in themselves” to “things for us”. As we gain a better understanding of these various factors and how they interact, we will be in a better position to plan, prepare, and respond to emergencies such as the Fort McMurray wildfire. Again in the language of Marxist philosophy, we are moving out of the realm of necessity, or our near total vulnerability in the face of natural disasters on this scale. From there we are moving into a realm of freedom, whereby we will be in a position to diminish our vulnerability in the face of these types of natural disasters on the basis of our improving scientific understanding.

Socialism or barbarism

The simple truth of the matter is that aside from natural climate variability and potentially El Niño, human activity is at root the source of pretty much all the other elements that had an impact on the size and intensity of this fire – to whatever degree. What is needed is the scientific study and rational, fact-based understanding of these elements so that we can begin to adjust, plan, and react accordingly in the face of natural disasters. But not only that. We need to understand our impact on climate and the environment and learn how to change our behaviour as a society such that we are able to live – productively – in harmony with the planet.

The problem is that this will never be achieved under capitalism because the need to exist productively in our environment stands in contradiction with the ruling class’ need to profit from production. If rational planning of production stands in the way of profits for the capitalist class, who own and control the means of production, then there will be no rational planning.

To achieve sustainable, harmonious production means we need to democratically plan our society. We need to plan how and where we produce, what we produce, and who for. Such rational planning cannot be achieved under capitalism. It cannot be achieved so long as the ownership of the means of production remains in the hands of the capitalist class – so long as production is for profit and not for need and according to a rational plan.

The main issue here is that we as a society have no control over any of this. Social, productive, and economic development are not rationally studied and planned – under capitalism these things are left to the tender mercies of the logic of the market and the narrow self-interests of the capitalist class. The interest of the ruling class in solving these problems only goes so far, i.e. only insofar as they can commercialize the “solutions” and can guarantee their profits and class rule, which in the end will be no solution at all.  

The entire scientific pursuit and the power to change our productive and social behavior are entirely at the mercy of the private ownership of the means of production, capitalism and the profit motive. This means that the ruling class has all the power, and we frankly cannot trust them to have the best interests of the planet or society in mind. The capitalists have shown time and time again that their profits and privileges trump all other considerations. This is rooted in the very nature of the capitalist system itself.

Capitalism will not be able to deal with changing climate or with the changing wildfire regime in Canada, or elsewhere. We have entered the “era of mega-fires” with more fires, an increased amount of larger fires, resulting in more destruction and higher insurance and fire management costs. Wildfire and climate experts agree that things are set only to get worse.

A recent article in the National Observer explained the recent research by Michael Mann at George Washington University on the effects of human activity and climate change on fire activity in California:

“Between 1999 and 2011, California reported an average of $160 million in annual wildfire-related damages, with nearly 13,000 homes and other structures destroyed in so-called state responsibility areas—fire jurisdictions maintained by California, according to Mann.

“During this same period, California and the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $5 billion fighting wildfires.

“Based on an analysis of wildfire damage in California over the past 60 years, Mann estimated that fire damage will more than triple by 2050, increasing to nearly half a billion dollars annually. ‘This information is critical to policymakers, planners and fire managers to determine wildfire risks,’ he said.”

In Alberta, 2.1 million hectares have been burned over the past 10 years. The largest area burned was 792,173 hectares in 2011 with the Slave Lake fire. The smallest area burned was 19,576 hectares in 2013-2014. The total for this year is obviously unknown, but with the Fort McMurray fire already over 500,000 hectares this year looks to be a big year for total hectares burned as well – pointing to the difficulty in budgeting annually for wildfire management costs and the need for a flexible, scientific approach – something capitalism cannot afford.

Over the same 10-year period the Alberta government has spent $4.7 billion fighting wildfires. The most spent in any one year was $484.8 million in 2015-2016. It is assumed that this year’s total will be higher still. If we are entering an era of larger and more intense fires, then the costs of fighting these fires and the resulting damages will continue to increase – potentially increasing well beyond what current capitalist governments can budget, absorb, and deal with.

And this is just on the question of forest fires. Other natural disasters such as flooding and major storms are a constant threat on the prairies, and will bring with them similar problems in the future.

There are modern, scientific proposals for wildfire management. But these proposals go beyond the limits of capitalism as they require significant changes to how we plan our communities and where and how they are built. It requires changes to how communities and evacuations are managed, not to mention significant improvements and changes to infrastructure as well as to other properties and homes.

If we leave these needs to the tender mercies of the logic of the market and self-interests of the capitalists, these required changes will not be made and we will see only increased destruction and misery in the face of natural disasters – in addition to the daily miseries under capitalism in decline.

The Fort McMurray wildfire poses the question – who controls society? The problems of environmental degradation, pollution, and climate change stand in stark contradiction with human society’s current productive needs and technique under capitalism.

The capitalist class has long since ceased to play even a relatively progressive role in society. In fact, the capitalist system itself now threatens the very world and society it has created. The advances in productive technique and agriculture under capitalism have brought production and a human imprint on the environment to literally every corner of the globe. In many cases, there is a negative feedback and these imprints threaten our ability to expand and improve production itself.

The developing crisis of world capitalism threatens the very foundations of modern society. Our productive needs stand in frank contradiction with the environmental question. This contradiction between productive technique and the environment in turn threatens human progress itself. As a result of capitalism, humanity stands at the crossroads. The question before us is quite literally socialism or barbarism. 

The fundamental barriers to human progress are the private ownership of the means of production and the nation state. Socialism offers a powerful alternative to the ruthless exploitation, poverty, and inequality inherent to capitalist society. The changes that need to be made to our productive technique, agriculture, and energy extraction etc., such that we can produce in a sustainable and planet-friendly manner, cannot and will not be achieved under capitalism.

From the point of view of the capitalist class, new advances in productive and energy-related technology which could provide a way forward for society cannot easily be commercialized. At a certain point, the capitalists know it will be difficult to make a profit on green energy sources such as solar and wind power, not to mention a whole host of other emerging technologies. The answer for the capitalists is an easy one when faced with a choice between high profits on the basis of an oil-fueled economy and other potentially more social and democratic sources of energy such as solar and wind power. They choose profits - even if it means irrevocable damage to the planet and society.

The capitalists long ago stopped being concerned about the future. They only care about their immediate short-term profits. The social, economic, and environmental future of humanity is being sacrificed on the capitalist altar of almighty profit. It is on this basis that the capitalist system proves itself incapable of taking society forward. Capitalism quite literally holds human progress back.

You cannot plan what you do not control and you cannot control what you do not own. As long as the ownership of the means of production remains private and in the hands of the capitalist class, production and energy extraction will continue at the expense of society and the environment for the profit of the few – not for the benefit of society and the many. Society will not be able to overcome exploitation and poverty and will not be able to plan production and the use of resources in a rational and sustained manner. But these are precisely what are required in order to take society forward and protect the planet.

The task of resolving these contradictions has fallen to the working class. In order to plan the productive forces in a harmonious manner, society must own and control the means of production. For this the capitalist class must be expropriated. The solution to these problems is clear. It is only through nationalizing the means of production into a scientific, democratic, and rational plan that we will overcome the miseries of capitalism – exploitation, inequality, and poverty. It is only through the building of a socialist society that we will be able bring our productive technique into harmony with the both the needs of society and the environment - and take humanity forward.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3