Thick smoke engulfed areas across Canada and the United States. Thick smoke engulfed areas across Canada and the United States. Source: Dwayne Reilander - Wikicommons / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-SA 4.0

As horrific fires threaten a number of Canadian towns, the fossil-fuel lobby denies, obfuscates, and delays. Concerted climate action from below is needed to save the planet, argues John Clarke

This year’s unprecedented wildfire season in Canada continues without respite, and the results are becoming ever more serious. With long weeks left to go before the conditions driving the fires begin to abate, major urban centres have been threatened and tens of thousands of people have had to be evacuated from their homes and communities. Some of the worst recent developments have been in western Canada.

In the Northwest Territories, the situation remains critical and outcomes are still unpredictable, ‘as firefighters prepare for “extreme fire behaviour” in some areas.’ In the face of this threat, ‘crews were focused on cutting away fuel and “strengthening defenses” around affected communities.’

Fires have come within four kilometres of Fort Smith and its 2,500 residents are under an evacuation order. Local officials have issued a warning that with ‘the hotter, drier weather, increased fire behaviour is imminent. THIS IS NOT the time to come home.’

Several other communities in the Northwest Territories have been issued evacuation orders, including the capital, Yellowknife, with a population of almost 20,000. Despite this, 1,600 remain within the city and there is a concern for their safety, as wildfires have come within fifteen kilometres of the nearest municipal boundary.

‘This fire could be much closer right now if we didn’t have those successful days of suppression and a little bit of help from weather,’ noted Mike Westwick, a wildfire information officer. He added, however, that a ‘couple of good days does not mean we’re out of the woods at all, so to speak. We’ve still got a long way to go here.’

The federal government has now ‘deployed “significant military assets” to assist with air evacuations and firefighting efforts in the Northwest Territories.’ Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, striking a hopeful if rather vague note told those impacted by the disaster that ‘we’re making sure that we’re there to respond to all the needs of community now and will be there in the coming months and years as we look to keep people safe moving forward, even as we rebuild in places where there are terrible losses.’

Residents flee

Thousands have had to flee their homes in British Columbia, and the province has declared a state of emergency. Last week, the city of Kelowna, with its 150,000 residents, came under threat, as ‘an approaching fire burned houses and woodland.’ As this unfolded, some 380 wildfires were burning across the province.

Firefighters have made some fragile progress in containing the spread of the fires but local authorities are reluctant to rescind evacuation orders prematurely, given the unpredictability of the conditions driving the fires. West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund told those who are waiting to return to their homes that ‘We want to avoid having to evacuate you a second time if this incident escalates.’’ 

The Regional District of Central Okanagan (RDCO) offered evacuated residents a new portal that would enable them to check on whether or not their properties had been destroyed or damaged. ‘Some of the most challenging days are ahead. People and communities will learn of monumental loss. This will be a process of grief collectively,’ said RDCO chair Loyal Wooldridge.

An ‘attribution study, conducted by a coalition of scientists in Canada, the UK and the Netherlands,’ has concluded that the ‘conditions that caused Canada’s extreme spate of wildfires this year … were made at least twice as likely due to the human-caused climate crisis.’ So far this year, ‘nearly 14m hectares (34m acres) have burned, an area larger than Greece.’

Yan Boulanger, research scientist at Natural Resources Canada, noted that ‘climate change is greatly increasing the flammability of the fuel available for wildfires – this means that a single spark, regardless of its source, can rapidly turn into a blazing inferno.’

The study considered the ‘fire weather index, a metric that gauges the risk of wildfire through a combination of temperature, windspeed, humidity and rainfall.’ Looking at peak fire intensity in Quebec from May to July, it concluded that ‘its chances of occurring doubled because of the climate crisis.’ Moreover, the ‘fires in this peak were also 20% more intense because of the climate crisis.’

Though this year’s wildfires have far exceeded anything that has been seen before, it is clear that they are part of a trend that is only going to get worse. Writing in The Tyee, Andrew Weaver, a professor in the school of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria and former leader of the BC Green Party, notes that the ‘area burned by forest fires in Canada has increased over the past four decades, at the same time as summer season temperatures have warmed.’

Weaver goes on to argue that this ‘year’s fire season record will be broken in the near future as warming continues. And once again, it’s not as if what’s happening is a surprise.’ He also makes the important point that governments in Canada are only responding to wildfires as immediate emergency situations, rather than developing the necessary long-term ‘transformational approaches to wildfire management.’

Fossil-fuel lobby

Any notion that the severity of this climate-driven crisis would induce the fossil-fuel lobby to keep a low profile would be quite mistaken. The corporate mouthpieces that cheer on oil and gas production haven’t been at all subdued by the burning of the forests.

The Fraser Institute is a right-wing Canadian think tank that has been funded by the infamous billionaire Koch brothers, along with contributions from mining interests and Exxon Mobil. It recently put out an article denying that climate change was a cause of the present fires. It suggests that, while the planet may be warming, wildfires are attributable to ‘bad forest policy’ and entirely preventable.

No one, of course, disputes that greatly improved forest management is needed, but the article’s sarcastic reference to ‘pointing to the climate sky gods and calling for appeasement measures that will not affect Canada’s risk of forest fires’ is simply at odds with the scientific evidence, though it is most certainly a viewpoint that will be welcomed by those who fund the Fraser Institute.

The Canadian Energy Centre (CEC) has been referred to as ‘the energy war room’. It is ‘an Alberta provincial government corporation formed to promote the province’s fossil-fuel industry, in part by fighting what it has described as “domestic and foreign-funded campaigns against Canada’s oil and gas industry.’’ In July, with wildfires burning across the country, the CEC put out a bullish statement proudly proclaiming that “oil and gas had their best year ever. Every Canadian should be aware that our largest industry continues to thrive.”’

These harsh, unapologetic and well-resourced defenders of fossil-fuel capitalism continue to play a very active role in undermining effective climate action. However, the oil and gas companies have largely opted for a more subtle approach. Outright climate denial has given way to a sophisticated strategy that focuses on supposed ‘clean growth’ initiatives. The need for climate action isn’t openly rejected, but it is rather delayed and diverted, so that carbon emissions and the flow of profits can continue unabated.

As Nicolas Graham points out in his Forces of Production, Climate Change and Canadian Fossil Fuel Capitalism, which I have previously reviewed for Counterfire, such ‘an approach simply does not square with the scientific consensus on the scale and time frame for transition beyond carbon’ (p.188). However, a well-connected and enormously powerful network is in place and it is working relentlessly to ensure that this disastrous approach prevails.

Canada’s wildfire catastrophe is only one manifestation of a global climate crisis that is spinning out of control. If something on this terrible scale isn’t leading to an urgent effort to curtail carbon emissions, the conclusion that solutions won’t come from those with economic and political power is inescapable. The fight for meaningful action and real measures of transition has become a struggle for survival.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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