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Canada's wildfires are part of a worrying trend — but they're not without precedent

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Boreal forests are vast seas of evergreens that stretch across the planet's north. They make up the largest habitat on land. And across much of Canada this year, they are on fire. NPR's Nathan Rott reports the wildfires are part of a worrying trend, but they do have a precedent.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Under a smoke filled sky, three large airplanes - scoopers, as they're called on the fire world - take off from an airfield next to a base for Quebec's firefighting agency.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANES FLYING)

ROTT: The planes bank east towards a series of massive wildfires that this eastern Canadian province is trying to get under control. Already, the amount of land that's burned in Quebec this year is 10 times greater than what's been typical over the last few decades - or, as fire behavior specialist Normand Lacour puts it...

NORMAND LACOUR: We're seeing s*** hitting the fan.

ROTT: But Lacour says this firestorm wasn't entirely unexpected. A rainy start to spring morphed in late May. The air dried, temperatures rose.

LACOUR: We had numbers at the beginning of June as I - as we have usually at the beginning of August.

ROTT: The region he works in, northwest Quebec, saw the earliest recorded wildfire Lacour says he's seen in his 35-year career.

LACOUR: May 27.

ROTT: Three weeks earlier than was normal when he started. Lacour says it's part of a trend. Wildfires are starting earlier in spring and burning later into fall.

LACOUR: The last fire we had, the record was in '89. It was August 18. And last year, we had one September 2.

ROTT: So you've seen this lengthening of the fire season.

LACOUR: So in 35 years, we see the fire seasons get six weeks more than we had.

ROTT: Longer fire seasons, more intense fire seasons are happening around the world as human emissions warm the planet - that is known. And it's why some politicians, like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have linked the current wildfires with climate change. But the full story of what's happening this year in Canada's boreal forests is a little more complicated and requires a much longer view.

MILVA DRUGUET DAYRAS: If you think with your human memory, it's an exceptional year.

ROTT: Milva Druguet Dayras is a Ph.D. student at a forest research institute with the University of Quebec.

DRUGUET DAYRAS: But over time, it's not an exceptional situation.

ROTT: Druguet Dayras researches the history of wildfire in boreal forests. And what she means is that while sprawling wildfires of this scale are rare in places like Quebec, they're not unprecedented. Julie Pascale is a fellow researcher.

JULIE PASCALE: Years like this happen and happened.

ROTT: Pascale knows this by looking at cross-sections of log trees that have been preserved under the icy waters of northern Canada's lakes.

MIGUEL MONTORO GIRONA: Yes, this is this.

PASCALE: I got the classic.

MONTORO GIRONA: Do you know, imagine that people that survived through COVID. He's one survivor of three fires.

ROTT: This is Miguel Montoro Girona. He's an ecologist and the leader of this research at the institute. The survivor he's talking about is a cross-section of an old tree that lived through at least three fires dating back to the 1700s. Pascale holds it under a light.

PASCALE: Like, it's well-preserved because it was at the bottom of a lake.

ROTT: Sunk when loggers tried floating it to a mill in the early 1900s. This is just one example of how prevalent fires used to be in these boreal forests. Research actually shows less land burns now across much of Canada then used to hundreds of years ago.

MONTORO GIRONA: And in the case of fire, it's essential also for the forest. It's part of the forest.

ROTT: Montoro Girona says that doesn't mean human-caused climate change is not playing a role - it is. But, he says, to better predict the future, we also need to remember the past and recognize that fire, even ones as widespread as this year, have always been a part of Canada's boreal forests and will be going forward. It's on people, he says, to adapt. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Quebec. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.