Due to high temperatures and low precipitation in 2017, the western Canadian province of British Columbia suffered its worst fire season ever.
By the end of August, the number of wildfires still burning was around 160, although its team of firefighters had been boosted by the Canadian military and professional fire crews from across North America and Australia.
Its fleet of aircraft included well over one hundred water-bombers and helicopters equipped to dump flame-retardants. Nevertheless, the fires kept spreading, and if they declined in number at all, it was said that smaller fires had simply merged with other blazes.
The smoke drifted hundreds of kilometres across Canada and the neighbouring United States, seriously affecting air quality and the health of allergic people.
As reported in a range of international news media, during the summer of 2017 southern Europeans were sweltering under a heat wave with temperatures climbing above 40 C, and the number of forest fires increasing to 1068, well up from a long-term annual mean of about 400 (Euronews). By August 2017, 900 fires were still burning around the Mediterranean coast.
Thousands of people were evacuated from the surroundings of Rome, the French Riviera, Greek holiday resorts, and the Canary Islands. Huge blazes were spreading from the Balkans to Portugal, where 62 people succumbed in their cars when the road they travelled on became blocked by burning trees.
In Spain, 500 soldiers were ordered to help fight the fires, and Montenegro had requested the help of NATO for the aerial evacuation of its citizens.
Wildfires in Pedrógão Grande, Portugal, on 18 June 2017.
The underlying cause of the widespread inferno was linked to global warming, which had extended the European fire season from two months to five. Although most of the fires were believed to have been triggered by lightning strikes during thunder storms, a different perspective obtains from the United States.
There, of the 72,000 wildfires reported each year, humans were found to have been the primary cause, starting six times more fires than lightning (Associated Press, 2014). Accidental causes with serious consequences included vehicle sparks, abandoned camp fires, discarded cigarette butts, target shooting, and lost hikers
Everywhere, an insidious but most difficult to prove factor is arson. In Italy, France, and Spain several persons were apprehended under suspicion of arson, and there were rumours about a malicious role played by Al-Qaeda and Organized Crime groups.
Are most wildfires set by arsonists?
Raging wildfires in Canada became world news during the summer of 2016, when nearly 6000 square kilometres of boreal forest were destroyed in the province of Alberta, including 2400 buildings.
In the nick of time, the 88,000 residents of the oil company town of Fort McMurray were ordered to evacuate, fleeing south in a panick on the only road leading out of the northern bush, with tall spruce trees bursting into flame on either side.
In the world press, this huge-scale inferno evoked the spectre of global warming, which was seen as the major factor in the frequency and size of such natural disasters. The possibility of human involvement in starting the fires, either accidentally or deliberately, was considered, but arson was difficult to prove.
A territorial game manager stationed in Whitehorse said that arson is a huge problem in the north, particularly when the weather was hot and dry. Fires were commonly set by idle locals, who wanted to get hired as firefighters in return for three good meals a day, plus an hourly wage and overtime pay.
The disastrous fire that devastated Fort McMurray in 2016, as well as a mega fire that engulfed the Alberta town of Slave Lake in 2011, were suspected to have been sparked deliberately, although the culprits were never identified. Both fires began under similar conditions, on days when the weather was hot while strong winds were blowing toward the town.
Officials discovered that the fires got their start in a human accessible locality at a time when there were no reports of thunderstorms or lightning strikes in the region.
2016 Fort McMurray wildfire.
Who are these firebugs? Just hooligans? Or does what they do constitute a hate crime, committed by persons with a grudge against industrial development and residential sprawl in what once was, not long ago, a pristine boreal wilderness.
Apparently, some firebugs enjoy starting a blaze just for the thrill of watching the flames spread. In May of 2006, a 19-year old volunteer firefighter was convicted of 18 counts of setting brush fires near the Alberta town of Mayerthorpe. And in August 2016, two bored firefighters in Nova Scotia were charged with a total of 28 counts of arson..
In December 2016, the Canadian Press reported that the province of Alberta was increasing the maximum fines for arson to $100,000 for individuals and one million for corporations.
According to the United States Volunteer Fire Council, there are an estimated one hundred arrests a year involving arson conducted by firefighters. Many of the fires that have destroyed hundreds of expensive hillside homes in California during the drought years are known or believed to have been ignited by arsonists.
In November of 2016, the international news media reported that the Israeli capital of Haifa was shrouded in smoke from fires set by people during a period of very high winds that blew the flames down wooded ravines into the city.
Always quick with reprisals, the Israelis rounded up and imprisoned 13 Palestinian suspects. In the words of prime minister Netanyahu, the fires were a terrorist act perpetrated by “elements with great hostility toward Israel.”