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A Quebec man pleaded guilty to setting 14 forest fires in 2023, a record year for wildfires in Canada.
The fires the man set, and the land that burned as a result, represent a fraction of the wildfires and damage throughout Canada that year.
Experts said climate change factored significantly in Canada’s wildfires, causing weather conditions that increase the fires’ severity.
Learn more about PolitiFact’s fact-checking process and rating system.
After a Quebec man pleaded guilty in January to setting 14 forest fires in 2023, social media users were quick to seize on his admission as a reason to dismiss climate change’s role in Canada’s record-breaking year for wildfires.
A Feb. 6 Instagram post shared an image of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a headline that read, "Quebec man pleads guilty to setting 14 forest fires — Trudeau claimed it was climate change." The headline matches one on a Jan. 16 article in The Post Millennial, a conservative Canadian publication.
The Instagram post’s caption said, "True story — remember when everyone was freaking out saying it was climate change and there was smoke covering New England. They squashed the arson story immediately, well it was true."
The Instagram post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)
The 14 fires set by Brian Paré, and the damage they caused, represent only a tiny fraction of the number of wildfires recorded and the amount of land burned in Quebec and Canada in 2023, government statistics show.
According to news reports, Paré, 38, pleaded guilty to setting 14 forest fires. A prosecutor said Paré had posted conspiracy theories on social media that the government was intentionally setting the wildfires to convince people of climate change.
A record 18.5 million hectares of land, or more than 45.7 million acres, burned from more than 6,500 forest fires in Canada last year. Smoke from the blazes traveled south, often affecting air quality in U.S. states last summer.
Officials said fires Paré set burned from 853 to 900 hectares, or 2,100 to 2,223 acres.
In Quebec alone, there were 706 to 713 fires, burning 4.4 million to 5 million hectares, or 12.3 million acres.
Philippe Bergeron, a spokesperson for the Quebec-based Society for the Protection of Forests Against Fire, said 17 of Quebec’s total fires in 2023 were determined to have started by arson, burning about 967 hectares of land.
The Instagram post about arson misrepresents the scientific discussion about wildfires and climate change, said Monica Emelko, a University of Waterloo professor who researches wildfires’ impacts on safe drinking water.
Wildfires are a natural part of many regions’ ecosystems and are caused by lightning strikes and human activities, she said. The human activities can include things such as campfires, cigarettes discarded in brush, recreational vehicle use in dry vegetation and arson, said Natural Resources Canada spokesperson Barre Campbell.
"The linkage between climate change and wildfire does not focus on wildfire starts and ignitions," Emelko said. "Rather, we know that climate change has led to conditions on the landscape that enable larger, more severe wildfires."
Those conditions were evident in Canada last year, said Bergeron.
"Climate change had a significant impact this season in Quebec. Widespread drought combined with a devastating lightning line are responsible for this historic season," Bergeron said.
Bergeron said during a normal season, about 80% of forest fires are caused by humans, and 20% by lightning. In 2023, though, about 53% of Quebec’s forest fires were caused by lightning, and those fires accounted for more than 99% of the area burned.
Campbell, the Natural Resources Canada spokesperson, said climate change is increasing the frequency, intensity, duration, size and timing of extreme wildfires.
"This is mainly due to climate change intensifying the conditions that can create and feed extreme fire events, such as loss of soil moisture, decreases in precipitation, drier forest conditions, and higher temperatures," Campbell said.
An August 2023 study by World Weather Attribution, an academic group that studies climate change’s possible effects on extreme weather, looked at Canada’s wildfires from May through July.
Researchers found that climate change more than doubled the likelihood of extreme fire weather conditions in Eastern Canada.
"Climate change made the cumulative severity of Quebec’s 2023 fire season to the end of July around 50% more intense, and seasons of this severity at least seven times more likely to occur," the study’s authors wrote.
Clair Barnes, a research associate at Imperial College of London and the study’s lead author, said climate scientists don’t suggest climate change is igniting fires, but that it makes the region warmer and the vegetation drier.
"This increased fuel availability made it much more likely that the fires would spread and become more severe," Barnes said.
In 2023, Canada had its warmest May-through-June period since 1940. Warm, dry conditions, along with continuous winds, "fueled extensive fire spread," they wrote.
"Changes in fire weather are associated with an increase in temperature and decrease in humidity, both of which are driven by human-induced warming," the study said.
Emelko said the number of wildfires is not increasing, but the number of large "megafires" is rising. They are also happening in regions historically not prone to wildfires, she said.
"Any one regional attempt to set fires would be inconsequential to the large amount of scientific data that exist globally" about climate change’s impact on wildfires, she said.
"Regardless of whether arson led to the fire starts, climate change has led to conditions on the landscape that contribute to, not exclusively cause, the increased occurrence of larger, more severe wildfires," Emelko said.
An Instagram post said arson, not climate change, caused Canada’s record 2023 wildfire season.
The number of fires set by one man, and the amount of land that burned as a result, are only a fraction of the fires and acreage lost to wildfires in Canada last year. The post misunderstands the scientific discussion about climate change and wildfires, experts said.
Although wildfires are generally started by lightning strikes or human activities, including arson, climate change has created conditions that increase the fires’ intensity and severity, researchers say.
We rate the claim False.
Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, National Fire Situation Report, Oct. 6, 2023
Society for the Protection of Forests Against Fire, 2023 statistics, accessed Feb. 9, 2024
Email interview, Philippe Bergeron, spokesperson for the Society for the Protection of Forests Against Fire, Feb. 7, 2024
Email interview, Monica Emelko, University of Waterloo professor, Feb. 8, 2024
Email interview, Barre Campbell, Natural Resources Canada spokesperson, Feb 9, 2024
CTV News Montreal, 'Alarming' disinformation about Quebec wildfires spreads after arsonist's guilty plea, Jan. 18, 2024
The Globe and Mail, Quebec man pleads guilty to setting 14 forest fires, forcing hundreds from homes, Jan. 15, 2024
The New York Times, Quebec Man Pleads Guilty to What He Accused the Government Of: Starting Wildfires, Jan. 19, 2024
World Weather Attribution, Climate change more than doubled the likelihood of extreme fire weather conditions in Eastern Canada, Aug. 22, 2023
World Weather Attribution, Climate change fuelled extreme weather in 2023; expect more records in 2024, Dec. 22, 2023
World Weather Attribution, Climate change more than doubled the likelihood of extreme fire weather conditions in Eastern Canada
Email interview, Clair Barnes, research associate at Imperial College London, Feb. 9, 2024
The Guardian, After a record year of wildfires, will Canada ever be the same again?, Nov. 9, 2023
BBC, Did climate change cause Canada's wildfires?, June 12, 2023
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