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Byron Shire
August 1, 2021

What can we learn from North America’s increasing fires and heatwaves?

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Helicopter fighting BC forest fires during a hot sunny summer day. Taken near Port Alice, Northern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Photo EB Adventure photography

As the northern hemisphere swelters through summer, the Canadian province of British Columbia is fighting nearly 200 wildfires.

Australia shares firefighting resources and personnel with the US and Canada, although the pandemic has limited this, and there are growing concerns that the expansion of the fire season in each hemisphere will require resources deployed on both sides of the equator at the same time.

Something that can be shared much more easily is data: over the past decade, research in both Australia and North America has become useful in predicting the speed and spread of fires.

The Canadian fires are the result of a heatwave that broke records across northwestern USA and southwestern Canada last week. Extreme heatwaves like this are going to become more frequent, and more intense, as human-induced climate change progresses.

The immediate cause of the current heatwave, and subsequent fires, is a ‘heat dome’ – a meteorological phenomenon that involves the presence of hot air through all layers of the atmosphere, preventing cool sea breezes and cloud cover.

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, temperature records, which are normally beaten by small increments, tumbled by huge amounts across the region. For instance, Quillayute in the US recorded a maximum of 43°C (110°F), six degrees above its previous high of 37°C (99 °F). Lytton, in Canada, broke a nationwide temperature record when it reached 46°C (116°F). A fire later destroyed much of the town, killing two people.

As climate change exacerbates risk, data sharing is vital.

Forest fires are a yearly phenomenon in North America, but the current fires have burned a much larger area than average for this time of year, and more fires are expected as the northern hemisphere summer progresses.

‘While the environments are quite different, there are many lessons in fire science that can be learnt between Australia and Canada, from fire behaviour to warnings,’ says Richard Thornton, CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.

There are, of course, major differences between fires in different environments. Fuel load, for instance, is one of the fundamental predictors of fire spread, meaning that the types of trees in different regions play a big part in how large fires behave.

‘As we continue to learn from the Black Summer fires of 2019–20 here, and share the knowledge gained with other researchers from countries like Canada, Australia too will be able to learn from the current Canadian fires,’ says Thornton.

‘Research collaboration is vital, both in sharing knowledge from afar, but also through research exchanges, with Australian scientists spending time with colleagues in Canada, and Canadian researchers working in Australia.’

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  1. Yes all unprecedented !! Never has Global Warming ever been mentioned in the Northern hemisphere and the southern
    Record cold temperatures… as the great
    Mr Flannery suggested record cold temperatures could be as a result of
    Climate change.. well expect anything different ? No ..

    • Barrow old son, finally an admission from you, The Great Denier, that we seeing unprecedented event. It wasn’t so hard afterall now, was it.

  2. We have learned that radical climate swings and increasing temperature extremes are happening with frightening regularity all over the globe over the last 20 years. More extreme, more often, more records broken. We learned that vested interests do not want to alter their money train and a lot of us don’t want to sacrifice much of our life’s routine unless we have to. We learned that the gov can act on a C19 pandemic and the public will go a long way to comply in the common interest when a single event happens. We have now learned that we most likely do not have enough resources, money, and energy to battle the large number of disasters that have been coming our way and realise that if disasters increase from all directions we will be stuffed. We have finally learned that change is gunna come; ‘the old road is rapidly fad’in’ and we dont know have much time we have till a disaster visits our street……. what seemed like a long time off is now not so far away …….. Unfortunately, everyone will have their priorities changed. We can work together or splinter into competing faction, which is what we are doing now…


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