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Jess Frampton

Five-alarm fire: Why Canada’s wildfire season could scorch last year's record

Remember last summer, when New York’s skyline glowed orange – looking apocalyptic – thanks to Canadian wildfires? Last year, between May and October, some 6,500 fires burned nearly 46 million acres of Canada’s land, the worst year on record. The blazes sent toxic smoke throughout much of the country and down into the United States as far south as Florida, at one point leaving New York City with the worst air quality in the world.

And now, this year’s wildfire season looks like it may scorch last year’s record.

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Paige Fusco

Graphic Truth: Canada braces for wildfire season

As the weather warms, the US and Canada are bracing for the potential of another record-breaking wildfire season. Canada’s 2023 wildfire season was the most destructive on record, with more than 6,000 fires tearing through tens of millions of acres and blanketing the US East Coast and Midwest in smoke.

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The fire-ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii.

Reuters

Fires undermine tourism in B.C., Maui

Tourist operators in both British Columbia and Hawaii are suffering as a result of catastrophic wildfires. Both want and need potential customers to return, though travel restrictions remain in the parts of B.C. that are still on fire.

In Maui, 115 are confirmed dead and hundreds remain missing as a result of the wildfires in Lahaina, which experts blame on climate change. The blazes destroyed the historic town, and more than 8,000 people have been thrown out of work by the sudden collapse of the tourism industry. Still, other parts of Maui remain open for business, and tourism operators in those areas are hoping visitors will return before they go broke.

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After a summer from hell, will voters embrace climate action?

Pierre Poilievre, leader of Canada’s Conservative Party, is having a pretty good summer. He’s holding well-attended “Axe the tax” rallies across the country, promising to get rid of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his unpopular carbon tax, which is hitting drivers at the pumps.

This week, though, Poilievre had to postpone rallies in British Columbia and the Yukon because of wildfires that have forced tens of thousands to flee their homes and burned 15 million hectares of bush, leaving an area the size of Illinois in ashes. Since the carbon tax was designed to reduce the emissions that contributed to these catastrophic fires, it was bitterly ironic that Poilievre’s campaign against the tax was interrupted by the fires, but he is not changing course.

In both Canada and the United States, this has been a hellish summer, with so much climate-related extreme weather that it is hard to keep track. The summer started with wildfires and floods in typically temperate Nova Scotia. Heat records have fallen in Arizona. Ocean water the temperature of a hot tub has killed coral in the turquoise waters of the Florida Keys. A deadly fire laid waste to tropical Maui. A hurricane hit L.A.

Have voters been listening?

For decades, climate scientists have been warning these disasters would come if we don’t reduce the emissions that are warming the planet. Now that the disasters have started, will people recognize the urgency of the problem?

“That is the multi-trillion dollar question,” says Shari Friedman, Eurasia Group’s managing director for climate and sustainability, who has been working on climate since the 1990s.

“When I started on climate change, the assumption was that people weren't believing this, but that when people saw the effects, they would start to see it .. Now, I think the question is a little bit different because we're seeing the effects – it's pretty clear. And the question now is, what is going to change these trajectories?”

Climate scientists have done heroic work on a massive scale to understand and describe the processes that are causing extreme weather. But this has failed to convince voters to do what is necessary to bring down the emissions that are causing ecosystems to dissipate heat in ways that threaten human existence.

People are not wising up. The Pew Research Center, which tracks attitudes toward climate around the world, has observed a decline in the number of Americans who consider it a major threat, from 59% in 2018 to 54% in 2022.

The role of disinformation

Canadian pollster Frank Graves, of EKOS Research Associates, observed the same decline in Canada over the last three years, which he attributes to online disinformation. To many people, he says, climate change “is fake news. This is made up. This is a plot by the woke left to collect their useless carbon tax.”

In his most recent poll of Canadians, this month, while wildfires were top of mind, Graves observed that a growing number of people — mostly conservatives — blame arson, not extreme weather, for the blazes. (This is a pattern of misinformation found wherever there are wildfires.) Voters who believe fires are caused by arson, not a warming globe, will not support policies to reduce emissions.

“The patterns of who gets this disinformation are very, very similar in Canada and the United States,” Graves says, “because they are emanating from the same sources. And those sources are now telling people climate change is a hoax, and these forest fires are either just bad luck or, more pointedly, they are being produced by arsonists, saboteurs, activists.”

The issue, in both countries, is divided along partisan lines, with conservatives less willing than liberals to accept the views of climate scientists.

Riley Dunlap, emeritus professor at Oklahoma State University, has been studying American attitudes about environmentalism since the first Earth Day in 1970. He watched as the issue, which used to be of concern across partisan lines, became polarized in the 2000s. Now, he notes, opposing climate policy is an identity issue for Republicans – it’s up there with “God, guns, gays, and abortion.”

He has watched with dismay as opinions got harder, with Trump followers going against anything liberals support. Some 40% of Americans do not believe humans are causing climate change.

Researchers at American universities have found that attitudes about personal experiences of extreme events appear “socially constructed and interpreted through ideological lenses, rather than driven by individuals’ objective experiences of changes in weather and climate.”

Researchers found that hot, dry days — as opposed to sudden, extreme weather events — seem to convince some people that climate change is real.

“So far, actual experience doesn't seem to have had a significant effect,” Dunlap said. “But I'm open to the possibility that personal experiences and media coverage could be really shaking people up.”

If you thought this summer was bad …

Gerald Butts, vice chairman of Eurasia Group, who helped Trudeau implement Canada’s carbon tax, points out that researchers will have more opportunities to carefully study the effect of extreme weather on public opinion.

“This is the hottest summer of your life, but it's going to be one of the coolest of the rest of your life. Sure it's weird that the remnants of a hurricane are flooding the California desert while the northern part of the continent is burning. But we're going to see versions of that in every northern hemisphere summer for the rest of our lives.

“I think the deeper question is — because human beings are nothing if not adaptable — and part of that adaptation mechanism is, how do we tune out the things we don't want to see or hear? I mean, as these things get weirder and weirder, what is the new normal for what people can absorb, or will absorb, and react to?”

Former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Windham, NH.

REUTERS/Reba Saldanha

Hard Numbers: Trump’s bond, Saudis target Ethiopian migrants, missing in Maui, Ecuadorians’ pro-Amazon vote

200,000: Former President Donald Trump's bond in Georgia has been set at $200,000 ahead of a Friday deadline to turn himself in. As part of his release conditions, Trump, who is reportedly set to surrender for processing on Thursday, is banned from using social media to intimidate witnesses.

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The McDougall Creek wildfire burns next to houses in the Okanagan community of West Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada.

REUTERS/Chris Helgren

Hard Numbers: Canada fires, Israelis killed, Nicaraguan visas, Niger junta's plans … and where was William?

30,000: At least 30,000 households in British Columbia, Canada, have been told to evacuate, with another 36,000 homes on alert, as the province battles an unprecedented number of wildfires. Further north, 20,000 residents of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, have also been ordered to leave their homes. Overall, 1,000 fires are burning across Canada in what is now the country’s worst fire season on record.

3: Two Israeli men were killed on Saturday in a suspected Palestinian attack at a West Bank car wash, and on Monday, an Israeli woman was shot and killed in Hebron. Since the start of 2023, Palestinian attacks against Israelis have claimed 30 lives while nearly 180 Palestinians have been killed in the worst spate of violence in the region in 20 years.

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Aftermath of the fires in Lahaina

Hard numbers: Hawaii protects homeowners, Pakistan mob destroys churches, another migrant tragedy, aliens question humans

1 million: Hawaii’s governor has vowed to protect locals in Lahaina from being poached by opportunistic buyers in an attempt to prevent land grabs following last week’s fires. The average home in Hawaii costs more than $1 million, and many Lahainians already struggled to afford life there before the fire. The governor has instructed the attorney general to implement a moratorium on land transactions in Lahaina, but the move is likely to face legal challenges.
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A view of the damage caused by wildfires in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii.

Senator Brian Schatz via Instagram/via REUTERS

Maui fires fan political flames

With 96 people confirmed dead, more than a thousand still unaccounted for, and an estimated $5.6 billion in rebuilding costs, last week’s Maui wildfires are shaping up to be one of the US’ most devastating natural disasters. The catastrophe may also set the scene for nasty political battles in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.

Over the weekend, Republican US Rep. Lauren Boebert questioned why President Joe Biden remained on vacation in Delaware, railing on X, formerly known as Twitter, that "There is a total crisis in Maui. 3,000 destroyed homes. 80 people dead. Where's Joe Biden? On vacation of course. There is no bottom for this president.”

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