A Quebec resident who last summer had shared conspiracy theories online suggesting that the Canadian government was deliberately starting wildfires to convince people climate change is happening has now pleaded guilty to setting more than a dozen fires.
Brian Paré, 38, pleaded guilty to lighting 14 fires in the Chibougamau area of Quebec between May and September 2023. Last year was Canada’s worst wildfire season on record, with a total of 45 million acres burned. On many days, smoke from the fires spread across North America and around the world, degrading air quality and disrupting the daily lives of millions of people.
Two of the fires Mr. Paré set forced people to evacuate about 500 homes in the town of Chapais at the end of May, according to a statement by the prosecutor, Marie-Philippe Charron, in court and reported by The Canadian Press. One of those, the Lake Cavan fire, burned more than 2,000 acres of forest and was the largest of the fires Mr. Paré admitted lighting. The court hearing took place Monday; sentencing is expected in April.
Rising global temperatures contribute to longer fire seasons and increased lightning strikes, which were responsible for starting the most damaging Canadian fires last year.
Mr. Paré had shared Facebook posts over the summer claiming that the government was purposefully failing to control and even deliberately starting wildfires. Some of Mr. Paré’s posts also deny the existence of climate change, and link the wildfires to conspiracy theories that suggest governments are fabricating phenomena like climate change and Covid-19 to justify new restrictions and regulations.
Mr. Paré’s posts were part of a larger wave of misinformation in the wake of the fires, fitting apattern that has followed other extreme weather events like floods, heat waves and droughts.
“All of those generated a lot of buzz and, correspondingly, various forms of misinformation,” said Chris Wells, an associate professor of media studies at Boston University who researches climate misinformation. “When an event like this happens, there’s the obvious question today of, ‘To what degree is that related to climate change?’”
The specific type of conspiracy theory Mr. Paré shared — linking climate change and climate-related policies to ulterior motives by governments — is also common, Dr. Wells explained. “It is part of a broader realm of conspiratorial thinking.”
In reality, climate change is contributing to worse wildfires in a few ways, said Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at Thompson Rivers University in Canada. In addition to longer fire seasons and more lightning strikes, warmer air also sucks moisture out of vegetation, creating more dry fuel for fires.
While the scale of 2023’s fires was “off the charts” and may not to be repeated anytime soon, overall “we’re going to see more active fire years in the future than in the past,” Dr. Flannigan said.