Wildfire activity could increase threefold in the U.S., Canada and Russia by century's end, warns Natural Resources Canada scientist; forests will become drier, lightning more frequent

CALGARY , February 21, 2012 () – Canadians need to brace for more wildfires that are too big and too hot to stop when using traditional firefighting techniques.

"It's going to be incredibly difficult in the future to manage forest fires because the intensity of forest fires is going to be increasing," said Mike Flannigan, a senior research scientist with Natural Resources Canada and professor at the University of Alberta.

His team's latest research, presented here Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, predicts there will be two to three times more fire activity in the northern hemisphere by the end of the century.

"Virtually all of Russia, Canada, the U.S." will be affected, said Flannigan, who suggested the analysis may be conservative.

"We are going to see more fire in (the) future, that's the bottom line," he said. "A warmer world's going to see more fire."

Landscape fires around the world now burn an area bigger than India each year and contribute to an average of 339,000 deaths per year between 1997 and 2006, scientists reported.

The toll is expected to climb markedly in coming decades, said Flannigan. He suggested the wildfires that swept through Slave Lake, Alta., last year and Kelowna, B.C., in 2003 give a glimpse of the kind of fire that is going to become much more common.

The Slave Lake fire, estimated to have caused more than $700 million in damage, forced thousands of people out of their homes. The Kelowna fire burned more than 200 homes causing an estimated $200 million in damage.

Flannigan used global climate models to predict fire severity around the globe between 2070 and 2090. He said that forests in most of the northern hemisphere will not only become drier as temperatures rise, but there is likely to be more lightening to spark fires.

Add it all up and he said fires will become more intense and harder to stop.

"If a fire is intense, aerial suppression is no longer effective, so even modern fire management agencies, like Canada, the United States and Australia - among the best in the world - will be extremely challenged," he said.

"I would argue that the standard way of doing fire management will no longer be effective in the future," Flannigan said. "And that doesn't even begin to address many parts of the globe where they have traditional fire-suppression approaches, which will b e completely overwhelmed.

"So the risk to life and infrastructure is only going to increase under climate change."

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