Cranking up the heat on a world already on fire

This story is part of the World on Fire series, a podcast that takes us to the front lines of out-of-control wildfires in Canada, Australia and California. Recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, each episode examines what it takes to find hope in the midst of fear and destruction. Wildfires cost us our health, our homes and our communities, yet people everywhere rebuild and not just survive — but thrive. 

Diondray Wiley and his crew are surrounded by things that could kill them. 

“We’re seeing extreme fire behaviour on every fire, so I don’t know if it’s extreme anymore,” says Wiley, training chief with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department in Southern California.

Fuels are drier, winds are wilder, lakes are lower and the firefighters working in Plumas National Forest, part of the Beckwourth Complex Fire, are facing it all at about 40 C, some eight degrees above what’s normal for this time of year.

“Extreme is kind of fatiguing,” Wiley says. “People hear that so much and what we’re witnessing is so unrealistic but it’s what we do now.” 

Wiley, who is also a fire behaviour analyst with the U.S. Forest Service, says the season has started nearly two months before it normally does in this region. It is already stretching crews thin. 

Now in his 27th season, Wiley is up at 4 a.m. reviewing weather data and planning the attack. He’s still up at 11:30 p.m., mapping out the strategy for the next day. 

“I’m trying to look, instead of at my toes, look at the horizon,” Wiley says in what he knows is going to be a long, hot season. 

You can hear more in Episode 7 of CBC Edmonton’s podcast World on Fire.

A construction worker uses a misting fan to cool down at a work site in Vancouver on June 28, amid a record heat wave in B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“It’s just been astonishing,” says Johanna Wagstaffe, a meteorologist, seismologist and science reporter at CBC Vancouver who has been consulting with colleagues across the continent.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” says Wagstaffe. She says the term “record-breaking” doesn’t really capture the effects of the heat-dome pressure cooker that Western Canada was recently under.

In early July, the B.C. Coroners Service reported 719 sudden deaths in one week, triple the number that would normally occur in the province in a seven-day period.

“The fingerprint of climate change is all over this,” Wagstaffe says. 

Scientists are still taking stock of the effects on plants and animals but one example is “the leaves have fallen all over metro Vancouver,” says Wagstaffe. The stress has shocked some trees into shutting down.

Jeff Kavanaugh says temperatures we have experienced from late June to early July amount to a one-in-1,000-year heat wave.

And he isn’t so sure another one won’t come around sooner. 

Three hiking trails in Mount Robson Provincial Park in B.C. were closed this month due to flooding from fast-melting glaciers. (Sean Allin)

An associate professor of atmospheric sciences at University of Alberta, Kavanaugh clocked the melting of Alberta glaciers at about three times faster than average.

An accelerated melt is bad news for the water supply, especially in the summer when other sources of precipitation, like rain, have been hard to come by. 

Kavanaugh says there are credible predictions that most of the ice will disappear in Western Canada by 2100. 

“Individuals can only do so much. Governments and corporations need to do more to try to mitigate this. To not see that happen year in and year out, is really quite terrifying.”

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