The Politics of Flames

by | Nov 1, 2023

As daylight fades and smoke clears, I watch bright orange flames burn, lifting up trees as the fire works its way over the crest of the mountain. Into the night, the wildfire pushed through the hills of West Kelowna, with strong winds carrying embers over the lake on the Eastern hills. On August 18th, West Kelowna and Kelowna woke up to a state of emergency, with many evacuated, not knowing if the night’s flames left them homeless.

This fire, known as the McDougall Creek fire, burned over 12,000 hectares, and is one that will be etched in the minds of the Okanagan’s community. The fire burned through the hills of West Kelowna, with additional spot fires on the east side of the lake and caused evacuations of thousands in affected areas. It felt as if the world paused, but the world never did. Fires raged throughout the province and just north, the entire city of Yellowknife was evacuated, too. All this occurred within one week of August.

As a local, you expect wildfires to occur in the summer to some degree; it’s not uncommon to see minor fires in August, and there has been a pattern of extreme fires that cause community evacuations to occur with a number of clear years in between. The last fire of this caliber occurred 20 years, almost to the day, of the McDougall Creek Wildfire. Similar devastations and evacuations occurred. However, the difference between these fire years is the dramatic increase of neighboring wildfires outside of fire-prone environments.

British Columbia is the most Western province of Canada, where coastal landscapes quickly turn into dry desert as you drive through the interior. It’s common for wildfires to burn through these dry valleys, as the climate aligns with the world’s hotspots for natural wildfires. It would be one thing to see this trend in the Okanagan valley, as a hotspot for wildfires, but this year, Canada witnessed wildfires throughout the nation in what is the country’s worst fire year yet. June fires included Alberta, Quebec, Ontario, and Nova Scotia, which are all provinces where wildfire activity is considered abnormal. Wildfires are not only becoming more frequent and more severe in hotspots, but they are becoming unpredictable in location.

Beyond my own community, province, and country, this issue is impacting the world. Summer 2023 has sparked a global conversation, with the UN Secretary-General summing it up by saying an “era of global boiling has arrived”. With temperatures reaching record highs across the world this year, creating raging fires as a result, communities are faced with a global challenge. Wildfire hotspots, such as California, Greece, and parts of Australia, the Mediterranean, as well as East African and Middle Eastern landscapes, have been engulfed in flames throughout this season. The wildfire in Hawaii is another good example of a region that is becoming increasingly more fire-prone. More frequent and severe fires in the Mediterranean, similar to those in Canada this season, are raising questions as to whether permanent damages to ecosystems that generally bounce-back years after fires would still occur.

The cause of these wildfires is no secret; climate change has created increasingly warm, dry environments, making more landscapes fire-prone hotspots. There is a proven link between growing greenhouse gas emissions on the increase of global heatwaves and global warming. A recent study even reports that companies in Canada and the United States with the largest fossil fuel emissions can be directly linked to an increase in wildfires. The heatwaves communities are experiencing and the overall global warming of the planet, is contributing greatly to long lasting and devastating fire seasons.

Past the evidence and awareness that is growing to support the connection between climate change and the increase of wildfires, the causation of wildfires somehow has fallen on the spectrum of political ideologies. With an increase in wildfires this summer, there has been an increase in social media chatter and spread of conspiracy theories and false information. A circulation of TikTok videos in early June implied that fires in Canada were set intentionally by ecoterrorists in order to spread awareness and exacerbate climate change. The haze that traveled from Quebec to New York from the June fires created further controversy, with media outlets placing blame on Canada for the air quality in America. The August fires in Canada also created a wave of TikTok videos, this time questioning the methods and tactics of fire responders and their ability to help during the state of emergency. Nearly all videos that circulated on Instagram and TikTok of the wildfires this season in Canada included commentary that climate change is not to blame, but rather, a theory that people with ulterior motives created the blazes we are experiencing.

Politicizing wildfires” is the phrase that has been used by Ontario Premier and leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, Doug Ford, when asked to speak on climate change and its link to increased wildfires. The Premier refused to properly acknowledge climate change or its effects on wildfires, but acknowledged its link to politics instead. Just days after the Canadian wildfires burned in August, an Angus Reid Institute study was released and found that voters for the Conservative party “disagree that there is a direct link between this spate of wildfires and climate change” and “are the only group of party supporters who don’t describe climate change as a ‘crisis’ at majority levels.” Members of all other major political parties in Canada were found to believe that action is required on climate change and that there is a direct link between climate change and this year’s wildfires. This is not to say that identifying with conservative ideologies on the political spectrum is related to the belief that wildfires are not correlated with climate change. This indicates, however, that media and news outlets are associating political parties with wildfires. This is the Politics of Flames. Assigning political beliefs within the realm of what climate change has done to the planet. Climate change, and the increase of frequency and severity of wildfires because of global warming, should be a human issue, and it should not be made to be a politicized issue.

In this ‘era of global boiling’, if media sources focus more on positive change, rather than politicizing wildfires, there would be more energy put toward the awareness of climate change and solutions to minimize further devastations like the ones we have seen this year throughout the world. For example, during the McDougall Creek Wildfire, there could have been awareness spread on social media that looked to answer the question of mitigation rather than spreading conspiracy around causation. The Climate Atlas of Canada says that wildfire mitigation begins with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lowering the planet’s temperatures. Another source explains that Indigenous-led wildfire restoration is a good example of how communities can assist forests in the recovery process after a burn. By focusing more on sources like these, that help to spread awareness around mitigation, restoration, and awareness around climate change, we can take a step away from politicizing devastating events such as the 2023 wildfires, and move towards creating change for a more sustainable future.

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