West Kootenay climate scientists believe the area will experience a spike in forest fires and extreme weather events as the effects of climate change continue to intensify.

Frequency and intensity of West Kootenay forest fires spiking

According to climate projections, the West Kootenay can expect quadruple the number of fires by 2020s

Kootenay climate scientists are warning that the West Kootenay could be reduced to grasslands by the 2080s due to the growing number of forest fires and intense weather events caused by climate disruption.

According to the report “Climate Change and Area Burned: Projections for the West Kootenays”, West Kootenay residents can expect quadruple to quintuple the average of area burned by forest fires within the next half decade.

“By the time you get to the 2050s the projections are off the chart. It scares the Hell out of me. The only good part of the story is I’ll be gone by then,” said one of the report’s authors, Greg Utzig. A Nelson resident, Utzig is a conservation ecologist and land use planning consultant.

The report, funded by the British Columbia Future Forest Ecosystem Council, explores the implications of climate change on the forests of the West Kootenay.

“The results from the fire analyses for the South subregion are theoretically consistent with climate envelope shift projections that include a substantial area of drier fire resistant forest types, including grassland climate envelopes for the lowest elevations of the South,” the report reads.

“This would indicate a potential disturbance regime shift in the longer term from infrequent high intensity stand-replacing fires to frequent low intensity fires more associated with grasslands and open forests.”

Utzig summed this up for the Star the following way: “The amount of precipitation is going to increase, but the trick is the major portion will be in the winter. Meanwhile the summers are getting drier and also hotter. And a larger percentage of the winter precipitation will come as rain rather than snow.”

He called this a “worst possible scenario” for forest fires.

North Shore climate scientist Dr. Mel Reasoner agreed with Utzig, warning that the Pacific Northwest may express a heat wave akin to the one that killed thousands in Europe in 2003 and Moscow in 2010.

“Look at a climate map of those years and there was a big red blob over Europe. What’s happening is the frequency of those big red blobs is increasing significantly, and this year there’s a big red blob over western North America.”

Reasoner said the events were like “Hiroshima in magnitude” and the “morgues were overflowing.”

Utzig noted that the Kootenays had very few large forest fires in the latter half of the twentieth century—following a spike in the 1930s —but the effects of climate change are beginning to be seen.

“If you look at the graphs, it looks pretty bad in the 1930s but that’s small compared to what it’s going to look like in the 2050s.”

He said the fact they’re anticipating trees will be burned to the ground every two to twenty years means the area will no longer be able to support forests.

“If you think the Okanagan looks like grasslands, that’s nothing compared to what this will look like. As far as the eye can see, there will be no trees in the valley bottoms.”

To read and download the report visit kootenayresilience.org.

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