By Robert Girouard
Canada has been plagued by numerous forest fires in recent weeks. Almost all provinces, including Quebec, have been affected. True to form, mainstream media has been quick to associate these terrifying and spectacular natural events with (anthropogenic) climate change. Let’s look at the facts.
According to Canada’s Department of Natural Resources, natural disturbances such as forest fires, insect infestations, droughts, and floods have been part of the natural forest cycle for thousands of years and most often contribute to their regeneration. They release valuable nutrients contained in the litter and create openings that allow light to reach the forest floor, stimulating the growth of new trees. Fire is also essential for the reproduction of certain species, such as the jack pine, whose cones covered in wax only open under very high temperatures.
The boreal forest is particularly vulnerable to fires because it is mainly composed of resinous trees, which have a high flammability index compared to deciduous trees. Spring is also a season particularly conducive to forest fires because once the snow melts, the fuel accumulated on the ground quickly dries out. It should be noted that this is also the time when human activities responsible for 50% to 75% of vegetation fires resume.
Forest fires are part of the natural history of Quebec’s territory, just like snow, ice, and long winters. Since the Laurentide Ice Sheet melted ten thousand years ago, Quebec has likely burned hundreds of times.
Historian Stephen J. Pine, in “My Country is Fire – Quebec, Canada, Forests, and Fire” published in the International Journal of Quebec Studies, reports that immediately after the creation of Canadian Confederation in 1867, Quebec experienced a significant wave of forest fires, particularly in Gaspésie and the Lower North Shore. Then, a “Great Fire,” likely ignited by settlers’ slash-and-burn practices, devastated the Lac-Saint-Jean region, and nearly a quarter of the resident population required immediate government assistance. In March 1869, the government appointed a special commission to investigate, and it was in the wake of this commission that the first legislation and measures to protect forests were introduced. In 1901, it was the turn of the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, recently opened to colonization, to be ravaged by flames. The year 1923 was one of the most devastating, with over three million hectares burned. After the severe droughts of the early 1930s, the number and extent of fires began to decrease, except in certain exceptional years.
According to a document from the Ouranos experts’ firm, based on dendrochronological studies, “the fire cycle in Quebec has lengthened since the mid-19th century, corresponding to the end of the Little Ice Age. In the boreal forest of Abitibi and central Quebec, the fire cycle changed from 70 to 80 years before 1850, from 90 to 150 years between 1850 and 1920, and from 190 to 330 years between 1920 and 1999. This decrease in fire activity is mainly attributed to a reduction in drought periods and possibly to the use of better methods and greater investments in fire control.”
However, a fire erupting in a forest that has not burned for 100 years will generally be more intense than fires that occur every 20 or 30 years, due to the densification of vegetation cover and the accumulation of fuel.
That being said, 2023 is on track to be an exceptional year in Quebec, especially compared to the past ten years, which have been rather less than ordinary in terms of forest fires, despite being “the hottest years ever recorded.”
As of June 5, the Society for the Protection of Forests against Fire (SOPFEU) has recorded a total of 417 fires since the beginning of the year, compared to an average of 199 fire incidents for the past ten years. Furthermore, a total of 160,342 hectares have been affected, compared to an average of only 247 hectares for the past ten years.
The year 2022 was particularly calm, with only 26 fires and an insignificant area of 34 hectares. Yet, we were in the midst of a “climate crisis” according to the UN. It goes to show that one should never play with fire when making inflammatory statements.
By Robert Girouard