Canada wildfires spark 'ecoterrorist' conspiracy theory

By AFP   June 8, 2023 | 08:29 pm PT
Canada wildfires spark 'ecoterrorist' conspiracy theory
This aerial image, courtesy of the Nova Scotia Government in Canada, shows the magnitude of the fire in Shelburne County on May 31, 2023. Photo by AFP/ Nova Scotia Government
As Canada hurtles towards its worst wildfire season in history, a conspiracy theory has taken off online claiming environmentalists intentionally set some of the blazes.

"I bet a good portion of the wildfires raging across the country were started by green terrorists who want to give their climate change campaign a little boost," Maxime Bernier, a former foreign minister-turned fringe party leader, said in a June 5 tweet.

So far in 2023, Canada has seen larger wildfires than any previous year at this point in the season, with more than three million hectares burned. Tens of thousands of people have evacuated as a result.

On TikTok, a video already viewed almost 20,000 times, claims the fires in Nova Scotia were set "on purpose to push a climate change agenda."

One article speculates that since 90 percent of Alberta's fires could be "human-caused," there is a possibility that "ecoterrorists" may be behind them.

As wildfires spread in Quebec, some questioned how all the blazes could have started on the same day. One Facebook video with more than one million views blames "a terrorist attack" for the flames.

But Karine Pelletier from the province's Forest Fire Protection Agency said the causes are still under investigation.

"There are a lot which are caused by humans, but these are almost always accidents," she said, noting that recent lightning strikes were to blame for many of Quebec’s wildfires.

Alberta Wildfire told AFP that unless lightning is involved, a blaze is classified as human-caused. This does not exclusively mean arson.

"It could be related to general causes, including agriculture, forest industry, powerlines, or oil and gas industry, railroad or residential wildfires," said spokeswoman Melissa Story.

Nova Scotia officials have also said they are still investigating the origins of the province’s fires, which are presumed to be human-caused.

"Human-caused fires can be accidental, intentional or undetermined," said Heather Fairbairn, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Fire Marshal of Nova Scotia. "Certainly, we are seeing the impacts of climate change which can increase fire risks."

False narrative

Conspiracy theorists have repeatedly tried to pin devastating wildfire seasons on politically motivated arsonists.

During Australia's Black Summer of 2020, social media users misleadingly cited arson statistics from a prior year to blame unconnected crimes for the season’s bushfires.

In California in 2021, arsonists were behind several wildfires -- but there is no evidence they were pushing a climate change agenda, as some people claimed online.

Chris Russill, a professor at Carleton University studying climate change communication, said the ecoterrorist theory may have once had some basis in truth, but "then that gets exaggerated in its importance or significance."

Such is the case in Canada, where some social media users are citing genuine reports of suspicious fires to spin conspiracy theories about unrelated events and locations.

Climate change

On top of purported vigilantism, some falsely theorize that the Canadian government is starting wildfires, either to advance its climate change policies or to force citizens into cities where it will be easier to impose "climate lockdowns."

Russill tied those fears to Canada's signing of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which raised alarm about the impending climate crisis.

As the Liberal government implemented stricter climate caps and taxes over the past decade, Russill said people in Canada's natural resource industries have grown defensive.

"This grievance isn't actually always about a global fear of shadowy UN elites or eco-vigilantes, even though that's how this gets taken up and incubated in this sort of narrative," he said. "It's expressing the fact that the relationship to the federal government and the provinces has become more insistent and more forceful."

Social media posts insist "arson not climate change" is responsible for the wildfires, but Natural Resources Canada told reporters June 5 that this fire season was exacerbated by hot, dry and windy conditions.

"Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildland fires and creating longer fire seasons," said Mike Norton, director general of the Canadian Forestry Centre.

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