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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith downplays link between wildfires and climate change


Premier Danielle Smith says the government is bringing in arson investigators from outside the province to trace the cause of some wildfires during an unprecedented season in Alberta.

In an interview on Real Talk Ryan Jespersen, the host asked Smith how she reconciles her government's energy policies with experts linking this year's extreme fire season to climate change.

"It's a real-life metaphor … happening in front of us with a historic wildfire season," Jespersen said to Smith during Thursday's show.

"Every expert that we talk to indicates the significant factor that climate change is playing on our susceptibility to wildfire and on the conditions that lead to these massive blazes that are happening earlier and earlier in the season."

Smith responded that she's concerned about arson being the cause in some of the fires.

"We are bringing in arson investigators from outside the province," she said. "We have almost 175 fires with no known cause at the moment. Sometimes they are very easy to trace — when you have lightning storms, it's easy to trace. When you have a train derailment, that's easy to trace."

Scientists have said fires are larger and more intense, often burning throughout the night, due to climate change.

Jespersen followed up with Smith during Thursday's interview, noting that the hot and dry conditions that allow fires to grow are connected to climate change.

Smith again didn't acknowledge his comment, instead suggesting the Alberta government needs to do a better job building fireguards around communities.

"You have to make sure when a forest fire begins that it doesn't jump over into a town or a city because that's when you end up with real trouble," she said. "I think we did a fantastic job this time around."

Alberta has had an unprecedented start to its wildfire season, with fires scorching more than 10,000 square kilometres of forest since March.

Xianli Wang, a fire research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, said climate change is a major factor.

"It creates longer drought spells in the fire season, and also fire season is going to start early and end late," he said. "It creates more opportunity for fire to ignite."

Wang said about half of the wildfires in any given year are caused by lightning strikes, while the other half are human caused.

No matter how they start, though, he said hot and dry conditions also make the fuel — plants and logs in the forests — drier so fires burn more intensely and cover more ground.

The amount of land burned surpassed the 40,000-square-kilometre mark on Wednesday, making the 2023 fire season Canada's fourth-worst on record before the summer has officially begun.

"It is just not a random thing. Climate change is playing a major role to make it happen," Wang said.

Other conservative politicians have also tried to downplay the link between climate change and the hundreds of wildfires burning across Canada, which led to air quality alerts in U.S. cities such as New York and Washington, D.C. this week.

On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford suggested the issue was being politicized when he was asked by the opposition parties to go on the record to connect this year's fire season to climate change.

Maxime Bernier, leader of the People's Party, accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of lying on social media after Trudeau tweeted that Canada is seeing more fires due to climate change.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023. 

— By Colette Derworiz in Calgary Top Stories

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