A megafire raged for 3 months. No one’s on the hook for its emissions.
CACHE CREEK, B.C. — There’s no question the Elephant Hill fire happened.
From the first spark near a large rock outcrop in July 2017, it exploded into a beast of unceasing ferocity, forcing thousands from their homes as it devoured acre after acre of the British Columbia interior.
Over nearly three months, it crossed a river, hopscotched containment lines and climbed sagebrush-covered hills, churning into the atmosphere an estimated 38 million tons of greenhouse gases — roughly a year’s worth of pollution from more than 8 million cars.
But while Canada dutifully reports such figures, when it comes to formally accounting for its emissions as part of the Paris climate agreement, the Elephant Hill blaze and others like it aren’t part of the equation.
On paper, at least, they don’t count.
Canada and some other nations argue that events such as wildfires and insect infestations are “natural disturbances” that are mostly beyond human control.
Accounting for those emissions against their pledges under the Paris agreement would not only be unfair, they claim, but also obscure efforts to understand the impacts humans are having on the land when they plant trees, restore wetlands or improve farming practices to store carbon in soil.
Instead, Canada has crafted a sophisticated system to determine whether it is managing its forests in ways that help soak up more carbon over time. But that scientific approach leaves an unresolved political question: Who is actually on the hook for the massive greenhouse gas pollution from megafires, thawing permafrost and other land-related emissions around the world?
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“Once emissions are in the atmosphere, it doesn’t really matter whether they came from a wildfire or from someone’s Hummer,” said Torrance Coste, national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee, a Canadian nonprofit. “If they’re in the atmosphere, they’re causing climate change just the same.”
To slow the Earth’s warming, humans need a big assist from the land, which soaks up massive amounts of carbon dioxide each year. But land also releases CO2 back into the atmosphere as fires rage, forests are razed and peatlands are drained to make way for agriculture.
Under United Nations guidelines, countries can partly offset their fossil fuel emissions by subtracting the amount of carbon they claim their lands are absorbing. But that framework is beset with messy math, uncertainty and persistent controversy — creating a major chasm between countries’ greenhouse gas balance sheets and what independent analyses say is going into the atmosphere each year.
A recent Washington Post investigation found an enormous disparity between the emissions that countries report to the United Nations and what these independent data have documented. That gap ranges from at least 8.5 billion tons to as high as 13.3 billion tons a year of underreported emissions, based on figures through late October. The most substantial part of that gap — at least 59 percent — stems from how countries account for their emissions from land.
As the Elephant Hill fire shows, where to place credit or blame for land emissions can get murky fast.
Ashcroft's dry surroundings bore the brunt of the Elephant Hill fire, which obliterated the Boston Flats mobile home park.
The first reported sighting of the fire came at 9:57 p.m. on July 6, 2017. An eyewitness in Ashcroft, a village that boomed during the 19th-century Cariboo gold rush, called authorities to report white smoke billowing into the sky, according to the fire investigation report obtained by The Washington Post.
A crew was dispatched that night, and by 2:30 a.m. a first responder noted: “Edges of fire extinguished.”
When Steve Grimaldi, a veteran investigator with the B.C. Wildfire Service, telephoned an incident commander at 9:30 a.m. to say he would arrive in the afternoon, the news was good. The fire was out, he was told.
And then it wasn’t.
Bert William, senior archaeology adviser for the Bonaparte First Nation, got an ominous call from his sister at the Ashcroft First Nation reserve. The grass fire had mushroomed, swallowing up several structures, including their niece’s farm. All but one of the chickens and the family’s black Lab were dead.
At noon, a first responder was ordered back to the fire because it had “escaped control lines due to excessive winds.” When Grimaldi arrived that afternoon, the blaze was “out of control,” records state.
As it rampaged north, the fire obliterated a mobile home park and turned Cache Creek — a nearby village at the nexus of two highways — into a ghost town, forcing its more than 900 residents to flee.
It was only the beginning of the Elephant Hill fire’s destructive life. Already, it was behaving so aggressively that Grimaldi had to postpone for several days the field work necessary to answer a crucial question:
What caused the fire?
‘There was no way to control it’
If anyone could untangle that mystery, it was Grimaldi, a specialist who has spent 23 years investigating the origins and causes of more than 200 wildfires.
The 63-year-old has developed methods and materials used around the world and has trained investigators from as far away as South Korea. “It’s all about reverse engineering fire behavior, and kind of putting a puzzle back together,” Grimaldi said.
Over the years, Grimaldi has been aided in his sleuthing by new tools, including drones and satellite imagery. But ultimately, he said, he approaches every investigation, no matter how big or intense the blaze, in the same way: With no preconceived notions about where or how a fire might have started.
“It’s based on science,” he said. “It’s not guesswork.”
When he arrived near Cache Creek on July 7 — clad in fire-resistant clothing, gloves and a safety hat — it was a hot, mostly clear, windy day. The Elephant Hill fire was “well underway,” he said. But charred power lines had collapsed on a highway leading into Ashcroft, blocking access to the village.
Even before they get to a burn site, investigators can learn a lot about a fire. They can consult photographs of the fire, including from air attack teams; look up weather data; speak to first responders and police; and question eyewitnesses.
One early theory was that a passing train had set off the fire. The remote rock outcrop where it ignited was near a railway tunnel, and one tipster told the B.C. Wildfire Service in a July 15 email that a train was “screeching so badly” that night you could “hear the sparks.”
By then, the inferno spanned more than 25,000 acres. Farmers and first responders scrambled to save 200 cows trapped in a burning barn.
“It just took off,” recalled Cache Creek fire chief Tom Moe. “There was no way to control it.”
The fire rampaged through vast parts of British Columbia’s historic Gold Country. (Photos by Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press/AP)
A month later, with the fire still raging, firefighters began a controlled burn to clear fuel in its path. But, a fire official said, a “pretty dramatic and unforecasted shift in the wind” picked up embers and tossed them into a steep hillside — where they torched thousands of additional acres, angering residents.
One rancher told the Ashcroft-Cache Creek Journal that he and a herd of 100 cows were nearly trapped by the back-burn and that he had to abandon some of them in a bid to get to safer ground. “I’m numb. I just can’t get my head around it,” Greg Nyman told the paper. “Most of my cows are either burnt up or are going to die from their injuries.”
The fire burned through vast parts of British Columbia’s historic Gold Country, with its sprawling ranchlands that fortune-seekers once passed through. The area is also home to the traditional territories of Indigenous communities that pointed to the back-burn gone wrong as more evidence that wildfire officials and local authorities ignore their generations of knowledge about the land.
“You talk to any First Nation hunter [and] he’ll tell you when the wind changes, [because] he has to know that to make his living,” noted Mike Anderson, an official in the natural resources department of the Skeetchestn Indian Band.
The fire had scorched more than 233,000 acres and counting. By the end of August, the blaze’s gargantuan smoke plumes were visible more than 100 miles away.
It was a hot, dry, windy summer. Dozens of temperature records had been broken. A long practice of fire suppression and disregard of the Indigenous practice of prescribed burning caused combustible vegetation that fuels fires to build up and dry out on the forest floor.
In some areas, mountain pine beetles had laid waste to densely planted monocultures of lodgepole pines and other conifer species preferred by lumber companies for their commercial value, which left only more kindling for fires.
The British Columbia interior was a tinderbox. All that was missing was a spark.
Grimaldi eventually ruled out the train, determining sparks couldn’t travel more than two football fields in distance, over a rise and to the ignition site. “There’s no way the train could have done that,” he told The Post. “It’s physically impossible.”
Investigators collected more than a dozen items from the site, including fishing tackle and a red wagon, and concluded none was involved in the blaze.
But this much was clear: The remote spot, by a bend in the Thompson River, was no stranger to humans.
‘We are trying to be as rigorous as possible’
Few people have spent more time wrestling with the messy math of land-based emissions than Werner Kurz.
The senior research scientist with Natural Resources Canada traces his interest in forests to a grandfather who was chief forester for a private German estate owned for centuries by the same family. Kurz now lives in a home surrounded by soaring Douglas firs in Metchosin, on the southern coast of Vancouver Island.
“Sometimes there’s otters under that cabin,” he told The Post during an interview in his backyard last summer. “We’ve had a bear drink out of that bird bath.”
Kurz is outspoken about the seriousness of climate change — a danger, he said, few took seriously when he began working on carbon accounting more than three decades ago. “It’s been an uphill battle, but the sad reality is, we’re living it now.”
He’s participated extensively in international negotiations over the rules governing how nations account for land emissions — a system that critics argue allows countries to put a positive spin on their climate records but that Kurz and others insist is designed to answer critical questions as the world tries to tackle climate change.
Among them: When trees grow and store carbon, how much is due to careful human management vs. nature just doing what nature does? Are forests burning as part of a natural cycle or because of human encroachment? How big a factor are the direct and indirect contributions of humans to hotter and drier conditions?
Canada can experience massive greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires and other disturbances, a problem that climate change is exacerbating. In the severe fire year of 2017, emissions from wildfires nearly equaled the entire country’s emissions from all forms of energy use.
Since 2002, “natural disturbances” in Canada’s managed forests have on balance caused them to release more carbon than they absorbed — a trend that’s expected to continue.
Natural disturbances, Kurz and others note, are extreme in some years but muted in others, leading to wild swings in emissions totals. Failing to separate those disturbances out, he argues, obscures the impact humans are actually having on the land.
The changing math of emissions from Canada's land
In 2016, Canada’s report to the U.N. contained annual estimates of net emissions from its land between 1990 and 2014. The numbers vary, as natural disturbances such as wildfires are extreme in some years and diminished in others.
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Canada has submitted this report annually since 2003, and it has revised the emission numbers repeatedly. Until 2017, they followed a similar curve.
Starting in 2017, Canada stopped counting emissions from many wildfires toward its U.N. pledges, arguing that most are beyond human control. That change, implemented retroactively, made all the numbers drop significantly.
For 2014, an extreme fire year, Canada lowered its estimates from 48.7 million tons emitted into the atmosphere to negative 34.3 million tons, absorbed into the land.
Canada separately reports emissions that include wildfires and other natural disturbances that are not captured in the U.N.’s official topline total. Comparing the two figures reveals how much higher emissions would be for some years if these fires were included.
Kurz pointed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan to plant 2 billion additional trees by 2030, which could eventually subtract a lot of carbon from the air. The impact of such a policy, however, could largely vanish amid the smoke of worsening wildfires.
“Canada and Australia and others have always argued that we need to find a way to reduce the impacts on our estimates of these natural disturbances that we can’t control,” Kurz said.
He acknowledged land is unlike any other sector, given that it emits and absorbs carbon. “We are trying to be as rigorous as possible in terms of quantifying the uncertainty.”
And not, as some critics have suggested, trying to cast emissions data in a positive light.
“What hurts me more than anything else as a scientist is innuendos … that ‘Well, the whole system is set up to cheat,’” Kurz said, adding that the guidelines have gotten more stringent over time. “The whole system is set up to prevent governments from cheating.”
In 2017, Canada began separating out emissions from certain types of wildfires, such as the Elephant Hill blaze, in its U.N. greenhouse gas accounting.
“It may not be the definitive approach to separating out human and natural influences on landscape processes, but it is clearly an improvement over previous methods that could not identify trends in carbon changes in our forests directly from forest management,” Cecelia Parsons, spokeswoman for the federal Environment and Climate Change Canada agency, said in an email.
Want to know how much a ton of greenhouse gases really amounts to? Use our calculator throughout the story.
The effect, on paper at least, has been dramatic.
For instance, Canada originally calculated that its land had emitted nearly 49 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2014, an extreme fire year. But once the new accounting changes were applied, the country reported that its lands that year had actually subtracted 34 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Canada has been transparent about the new approach. The “emissions from natural disturbances” are still included in its exhaustive greenhouse gas inventory. But when it comes to what counts toward Trudeau’s goal to reduce emissions 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, “natural disturbances” don’t factor.
Kurz emphasized that when an area burns in a severe fire, Canada may not count the emissions in the context of its climate goals, but it also doesn’t count the carbon stored as that area grows back, at least not for many decades.
Still, not all scientists agree with the changes.
“Whether it’s a human-caused fire, a lightning-caused fire, prescribed fire, in managed areas or unmanaged areas, it doesn’t matter,” said Mike Flannigan, a wildland fire professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia. “The atmosphere doesn’t care. We have to account for what goes into the atmosphere and what comes out of the atmosphere in terms of carbon. To me, it’s shortsighted not to include this.”
Francesco Tubiello, a senior statistician at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, said that with U.N. accounting rules, “we get so bogged down in defining them and adding increasingly complex methods [that] we may forget that what is important is to act much more decisively, on the ground, right now.”
Canada’s new method falls within U.N. rules, but the global accounting system is inconsistent. Canada and Australia have developed complex methods to remove many wildfire emissions from accounting toward their climate goals, but the United States and Russia — two other nations with vast forests and devastating fires — have so far not followed suit.
The U.N.'s technical reviewers have questioned aspects of Canada’s approach. They noted that the nation defended removing many wildfire emissions by arguing they’re part of the normal forest cycle, and that wildfires ignited by lightning, a natural phenomenon, account for 97 percent of the area burned in the country.
But Canada, they wrote, “does not justify” the assumption that massive and destructive fires can’t be human-caused or that “past and present human activities have no impact on emissions and removals associated with such disturbances.” The reviewers recommended Canada provide more information about how these fires “are beyond the control of, and not materially influenced by the country, and tend to average out across time.”
The Canadian government said scientists “are working to implement these recommendations.”
Guido van der Werf, a wildfire emissions expert at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, said it doesn’t make sense to hold any one nation responsible for fire emissions within its borders that were made worse by a warming world.
Canada, while a major emitter, accounts for 1.6 percent of global emissions.
“Would it be fair,” he said, “to [hold] only Canada accountable when fire emissions rise due to climate change?”
In November, Canada’s commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, a government watchdog, blasted the country for being the “worst performer” of the Group of Seven nations since the Paris agreement was signed.
Canada is home to the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves.
Some environmentalists complain the nation’s land accounting also masks the climate-related impacts of its powerful logging industry. According to Canada, wood harvested from its forests resulted in nearly 128 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2020, the most recent year for which official data are available. Growing forests, including those recovering from logging, removed just under 131 million tons that year.
The result is a rough carbon balance between the forestry industry and steady tree growth. But if emissions from wildfires were included, those logging emissions would make Canada’s overall climate profile look much worse in many years, and especially years with severe fires.
“This is an enormous issue, and one that has not been given enough scrutiny,” said Anthony Swift, head of the Canada program at the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council.
“We are on paper avoiding a lot of emissions that are actually happening.”
A single megafire. A global problem.
After nearly three months, in late September 2017, the Elephant Hill fire was declared under control. It had scorched nearly half a million acres, destroyed more than 120 homes, killed wildlife, charred the plants and berry shrubs cherished by Indigenous communities — and sent millions of tons of emissions into the atmosphere.
Firefighters from around the world fought the blaze — just one more fire in British Columbia’s catastrophic summer in which global warming played an unmistakable role. Scientists later determined that human-fueled climate change made the risk of the 2017 wildfires in British Columbia “substantially greater” and the area burned as much as “11 times higher.”
“To be honest, I wasn’t expecting this kind of fire activity until the 2030s or 2040s,” Flannigan said. “That’s what keeps me up at night.”
The hills around Cache Creek are still scarred from the Elephant Hill fire five years later, as other fires continue to rage regularly in the vicinity.
Wildfires cause as much as a third of all carbon emissions from the world’s forests and landscapes. And there is worrying evidence that these fires are worsening because of climate change — thereby also worsening the climate problem.
As for what caused the Elephant Hill fire, Grimaldi eliminated lightning, in part because the most recent strike occurred more than a week before the fire. He considered electrical transmission from nearby utility lines but found they’d long been abandoned.
Investigators weighed a host of possible causes, including kids causing trouble, campfires, flying lanterns, heavy machinery — and dismissed each in turn. They finally settled on the most likely cause:
According to the initial fire crew report, a man on an all-terrain vehicle drove up and said “he hopes it wasn’t his cigarette that lit the fire, mentions he put cigarette out ‘properly’ on the rocks, thought he was careful, lives nearby, surprised there’s a fire.”
Ultimately, although they never found a discarded match or cigarette butt, investigators concluded the cause was most likely “smoking or smoking materials.”
“At the ignition site, on that day, the fuels were capable of being ignited by a cigarette,” Grimaldi said.
That moment of apparent human carelessness — intentional or not — coupled with forest and fire management practices that preceded it and the broader role of man-made climate change, place human fingerprints on the fire, raising questions about how “natural” a disturbance it was.
Kurz agreed that the lines around what constitutes a natural disturbance can grow blurry, and that the Elephant Hill incident raises “philosophical questions” that scientists and policymakers continue to wrestle with. But he noted that any fire that grows so extreme is effectively “beyond human control.”
The debate over wildfire emissions is part of a larger fight over the U.N.’s “managed land” system.
Nations can designate lands as “managed,” a vague term for areas where all greenhouse gases that get emitted or absorbed are deemed to be human-caused and should be accounted for, or “unmanaged,” where humans are thought to be having no impact and additions and subtractions don’t factor into a country’s official tally.
New Zealand designates all of its grasslands and forests as managed, for instance, but deems wetlands unmanaged. Canada classifies its grasslands, forests and wetlands as managed or unmanaged depending on how they’re used. Aside from remote swaths of Alaska, the United States designates nearly all its land as managed, and claims a 759-million-ton subtraction of greenhouse gas emissions as a result.
China appears to count all its forested territory as managed, allowing it to subtract a massive 1.1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its total in 2014, the most recent year for which it reported.
Other nations also have been accused of using U.N. rules to their advantage.
One example is Australia, where Prime Minister Scott Morrison boasted at a U.N. climate summit last year that the nation “meets and beats” its goals and reduced emissions more than 20 percent below 2005 levels, even as its economy grew.
He could back up that claim in part because Australia’s land sector has, on paper, been pulling more and more carbon out of the atmosphere in recent years, even as energy-related emissions increased 8 percent between 2005 and 2019. But if Australia factored emissions from the massive blazes in 2020 into its official accounting, for example, they would have more than doubled the nation’s total for that year, preliminary country estimates show.
Instead, Australia estimates its land stored away nearly 26 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions that year.
“Everything we’ve done is within the rules, but it’s not done in good faith,” said Polly Hemming, a climate and energy adviser at the Australia Institute, a public policy think tank, and co-author of a report that chided the government for “creative accounting.”
“It’s an open secret that we’re not doing the right thing,” she said.
In a statement, Australia’s Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources disagreed, saying that its greenhouse gas accounting system “is amongst the most comprehensive, transparent and timely” in the world, and in line with international guidelines.
Emily McGlynn, an economist and environmental policy expert who served as a State Department adviser in the Obama administration, said current guidelines in land-sector accounting developed out of a need to give countries flexibility in how they track progress, but they also require ongoing trust and reliable data.
“We really haven’t built the systems to be confident in each other’s numbers,” McGlynn said. “When you don’t have transparency, that’s when it becomes hard to judge how well a country is doing. There are ways to game the system if people are acting in bad faith.”
Some scientists and policy experts say one solution would be to require countries to adhere to separate accounting systems — one for land-based emissions and another for emissions from burning fossil fuels. That idea has not gained traction in international climate talks.
“The challenge with land use is it can distort things,” said Claire Fyson, an analyst and co-head of the climate policy team at Climate Analytics. “It can make it look like a country is doing better than it is.”
Nature is slowly reclaiming the burned landscape, with fireweeds sprouting from the ashes of the Elephant Hill fire.
For now, the fundamental question remains of who is tracking the significant land-based emissions that aren’t any nation’s official responsibility.
Kurz points to permafrost as one example. Northern Canada is full of this frozen ground that can emit greenhouse gases as it thaws. But because those emissions occur on “unmanaged” land, Canada’s not on the hook for them — on paper.
These questions threaten to set off political and scientific fractures next year, when world leaders are set to complete a global “stocktake” that will likely evaluate how the promises countries are making stack up against reality, and how their carbon accounting compares with the emissions that are truly in the atmosphere.
“If the global stocktake is limited to the information contained in national greenhouse gas inventories, it will contain an incomplete picture of progress toward the Paris agreement goals,” Kurz said.
“The scientific community understands this. The policy community is beginning to understand.”
Up in smoke
In July 2021, Lori Daniels, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, and William, the adviser with the Bonaparte First Nation, traveled with several students up a dusty forest service road toward the sprawling burn site in the hills above Cache Creek.
Charred Douglas firs loomed above grasses and fireweed. Pink flags dotted the site, marking plots researchers had set up to measure the fire’s impact on the land and its recovery.
The fire had burned so hot, Daniels said, it killed not just trees and plants but also the layer of decomposing material known as the “duff.”
Forest ecologist Lori Daniels, with her dog Stella, studies burn sites to evaluate their dramatic impact on the ecosystem.
It “burned so clean,” William said, that he’d unearthed artifacts buried deep underground, including centuries-old roasting pits belonging to the land’s early Indigenous inhabitants.
“At some sites, we’re still not seeing very rich diversity of understory plants recolonizing, and we’re not seeing natural regeneration of trees,” Daniels said. “To have a forest like was there previously will take decades, and in some cases, centuries.”
The Elephant Hill fire seared the soil, turning it hydrophobic, or water-repellent, a phenomenon that has triggered flooding and destructive landslides long after the blaze.
“You can’t believe that whole destruction is one fire,” said William, who estimates that roughly two-thirds of the Bonaparte First Nation’s traditional territories were damaged, including the habitats of fish and deer important to the community.
At Evergreen Fishing Resort, Ron Ebert was still sorting through the fallout last summer, four years later.
His grandfather purchased the resort on the shores of Loon Lake, 24 miles northeast of Cache Creek, in 1953. For decades, it drew visitors eager to catch high-jumping rainbow trout.
But on a mid-July afternoon, wildfires were again raging in British Columbia, including one that burned a whole community to the ground. A deadly heat wave had descended weeks earlier. Thousands of people were under evacuation orders, and thick smoke blanketed much of the interior in an eerie haze.
Ebert said many visitors had canceled their reservations. “If you look out here normally, you’d see at least five, six boats fishing,” said Ebert. “Today? Nothing.”
In 2017, he was among those forced to evacuate because of the Elephant Hill fire. His cat George survived, but six cabins, a boathouse, a collection of boats and RVs, and five docks had been incinerated. Returning home was “pretty hard,” he said, his voice swelling with emotion.
Ebert died in January, before he and his family could fully restore his beloved resort. But in his final months, vivid reminders of what was lost were all around. On a hill across the lake, rows of Douglas firs — the backdrop of treasured memories with his eight grandchildren — now stood like blackened telephone poles.
Scientists and governments will continue wrestling with how to account for the emissions from that charred landscape and others like it. But whatever the spreadsheets say, however the ongoing arguments play out, Ebert had witnessed his once-verdant forest and the carbon it held go up in smoke.