Climate change impacts at the fore for south coast communities after central Newfoundland forest fires

·4 min read
Changing weather conditions show the damage caused by a forest fire near the Bay d'Espoir Highway in central Newfoundland. (Darrell Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Changing weather conditions show the damage caused by a forest fire near the Bay d'Espoir Highway in central Newfoundland. (Darrell Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Darrell Roberts/CBC
Darrell Roberts/CBC

Chief Mi'sel Joe says Miawpukek doesn't get as much snow as it used to.

Joe said he used to be on the fence about whether climate change was having a tangible impact on the environment surrounding Miawpukek, a Mi'kmaw community on Conne River on the south coast of Newfoundland, but not anymore.

"Things I've seen in the last few years have really convinced me that the world is changing as we know it," he said in an interview with CBC News.

Joe said when he grew up, the ice was thick enough to drive across. Now, warmer weather and more rain has led to less ice during the winters.

"This past winter we were lucky to have a few weeks of ice to get out fishing," he said.

Joe said the lack of snow has also reduced runoff, which has led to dryer rivers and land. As the central Newfoundland fires continue burning, the risks posed by dry, forested land have become more obvious than ever.

"When you have the kind of weather we've been having, it's nice to have the sun shining once in a while. But I think it's got to the extreme," he said.

Darrell Roberts/CBC
Darrell Roberts/CBC

Two massive forest fires in central Newfoundland — one near Paradise Lake and the other straddling the Bay d'Espoir Highway — forced a five-day closure of the highway, the only road communities in the Coast of Bays region can use for supplies and travel.

Communities, including Miawpukek, made plans to fly in supplies as gas and groceries ran out, and even started preparing for potential evacuation.

The impact of extreme weather

Forest fires aren't new to central Newfoundland, but Joel Finnis, a Memorial University associate professor of geogaphy and a climatologist, said there is a link between global warming and the fires this summer.

"This may be the kind of thing that we're seeing in the future," he said. "Climate change has at least partially enabled the events we've seen this year."

A February report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated that forest fires and floods will become more frequent as fossil fuel emissions heat up the planet.

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Finnis noted climate change contributes to both wet and dry extreme weather events.

"I know it sounds strange. We're saying that climate change can promote forest fires, but also it can produce flooding," he said.

We're hyper-aware of the precarious situation we can be in at any moment should there be a forest fire with only the one way out of the town. - Connie Wilcott

Finnis said longer gaps between rainfalls can lead to dry conditions, which allow forest fires to spread, while large amounts of rain at once — especially during the winter months — can cause flooding.

Warmer temperatures can also lead to more frequent thunderstorms. Lightning has been pinned as the cause of the fires burning in central Newfoundland.

"You have to think about all the extremes," he said.

'Hyper-aware'

Connie Willcott, deputy mayor of St. Alban's, said her community is already taking those extremes into account.

St. Alban's was another south coast community cut off by the Bay d'Espoir Highway closure. Like Miawpukek, the community is surrounded by forest. Willcott said the town council is taking a look at its emergency plans in light of climate change and the events of the past month.

"We're hyper-aware of the precarious situation we can be in at any moment should there be a forest fire with only the one way out of the town," she said.

Darrell Roberts/CBC
Darrell Roberts/CBC

She said the council wants to work with the provincial government to reopen and maintain a nearby airstrip, which would give aircraft a place to land in case the town needed supplies or help with evacuation.

"That would be something I think that would be provide would provide us with a little sense of security," she said.

Miawpukek general manager Rod Jeddore told CBC News last week the community is planning to implement a fire break. Willcott said St. Alban's is considering doing the same. Willcott said the town council would also like to see another road into the community.

Willcott said the town is also considering the potential impact of flooding. In 2016, the only ground route into St. Alban's was cut off when Hurricane Matthew destroyed a bridge leading to the town.

Willcott encouraged other rural communities to review their emergency plans.

"If they happened to be in a wooded area and it's isolated and they only have one access way to get out of their town, then certainly just to, you know, try to reach out to someone like us who's been through it."

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