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Drought fuels wildfire concerns as Canada braces for another intense summer

Posted on 15 May 2024 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections by Gaye Taylor

As widespread drought raises expectations for a repeat of last year’s ferocious wildfire season, response teams across Canada are grappling with the rapidly changing face of fire in a warming climate.

No longer quenched by winter, nor quelled by the relative cool of night, last summer’s wildfires burned an unprecedented 18.5 million hectares of land—more than seven times the historic average.

Canada’s warmest ever winter followed, with low to non-existent snowpack in many areas, and ongoing drought raising fears that this summer will see more of Canada’s forests and wildland urban interface go up in flames.

“The dry and historically warm winter we just experienced across Canada puts the country in a bad spot heading into wildfire season over the weeks and months ahead,” The Weather Network reported in March.

In April, Canada’s Drought Monitor found much of western Canada, swathes of the Northwest Territories, central Ontario, and much of northeastern Quebec and Labrador in moderate to severe drought conditions. Meanwhile, British Columbia and Alberta are experiencing extreme and “exceptional” drought in pockets. B.C.’s scant snowpack after spring snow was at 63% of normal levels in early April, with conditions in some regions far worse, reports CBC News.

What happens next depends upon how spring progresses.

While B.C.’s south coast and interior did receive much-needed rain this past weekend and snow at higher elevations, The Weather Network predicted that any precipitation would “fall far short of what we need to meaningfully put a dent in the drought.”

Meanwhile, Alberta is now in Stage Four of its five-stage water shortage management response plan, writes Calgary City News, with 51 water shortage advisories now in effect in the province.

In Eastern Canada, the federal government warned that southern Quebec and eastern Ontario stood at a “higher than usual likelihood of fire in April,” with risks expected to extend into May, and the summer outlook dependent on whether and how much it rains.

Wildfires persist through winter

Wildfire fighting is becoming a year-round effort in Canada, with blazes smouldering through the winter, often underground, waiting to surge to fiery new life in the spring. In late February, more than 150 wildfires were burning in Western Canada, “hold-over” blazes from the inferno of 2023.

“We’ve seen this before but never at this scale,” wildfire expert Michael Flannigan B.C. Innovation Research Chair in Predictive Services, Emergency Management and Fire Science at Thompson Rivers University, told the Washington Post. “I’ve been watching fire in Canada and abroad since the late ’70s. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Flannigan said he worries that these “zombie” fires are more dangerous than they appear. Most are typically classified as under control, but he warned they are sleeping giants. With perimeters “thousands and thousands of kilometres long,” they are impossible to fully control, he said.

In response, the Northwest Territories—which saw its worst wildfire season ever last year with more than 4.1 million hectares burned—is deploying aerial infrared scanners to track the existence, and full extent, of zombie fires.

Round-the-clock summer blazes

Come summer, wildfires are expected to exhibit another new behaviour: overnight burning.

“We saw our fiercest fire behaviour taking place well after dark, in the early morning hours,” West Kelowna, B.C., fire chief Jason Brolund told The Canadian Press, recalling the monster McDougall Creek fire last August, the largest blaze in the community’s history. “That’s when we had the worst battles.”

The fire defied expectations that the relative cool and humidity of a summer night would quell a blaze, giving reprieve to the forest and firefighters. Instead, drought and the abundance of tinder-dry fuel, coupled with reduced humidity at night, is driving nighttime fires, found [pdf] a recent study from the University of Alberta’s Department of Renewable Resources.

Fighting wildfires in the dark is a “nightmare” scenario, Brolund said. Heavy equipment operation becomes difficult, and critical air support, including medical support for firefighting crews, is “limited.” A round-the-clock fire line also calls for larger crews.

And the prospects for that work force are not great.

Compensating and protecting volunteers

Canada relies heavily on volunteers to fight its wildfires. “As of 2023, there were 125,500 firefighters in Canada, of [whom] about 88,500 (71%) were volunteers, whose departments protected 80% of the country’s territory,” reports CP.

Physically demanding and dangerous, the volunteer wildland firefighting sector has been challenged by attrition, losing more than 30,000 recruits between 2016 and 2023. Ken McMullen, president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, fears that last summer’s “ferocious” fire season will worsen the exodus.

“We asked volunteer firefighters to respond for weeks and months at a time last year, leaving behind their responsibilities, their employment, their parental or spousal duties,” McMullen told CP. “That is not sustainable, and we are seeing that now with the reduction of firefighters in this country, particularly volunteer firefighters, because at the end of last season some people just said, ‘I’m done. I can’t do this anymore.’”

Such burnout is happening as the need for wildland firefighters grows, McMullen added, describing last year’s fire season as all-hands-on-deck.

Both the federal and provincial governments are trying to make the job more appealing: the feds have pledged to double the tax credit for volunteer firefighters to C$6,000, while Ontario is trying a $5,000 recruitment bonus. The provincial government also announced it will be giving wildland firefighters the same presumptive coverage for illnesses like cancer and post-traumatic stress as their municipal counterparts when they submit claims to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.

Veteran wildland firefighter Mark Belanger, president of the Thunder Bay local of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, told the Globe and Mail that more needs to be done in the first place to protect wildland firefighters from exposure to carcinogens on the fire line.

Communities prepare

Wildfire crew health and safety is a concern for Northwest Territories authorities as they prepare for another fierce wildfire season, nine months after 25-year-old firefighter Adam Yeadon died when he was hit by a falling tree.

“This is going to be the summer where we really want to make sure we slow down for safety—and that we’re taking our time to make sure we’re looking around and completing all the required steps before we really put people into highly dangerous situations,” Richard Olsen, manager of fire operations for the NWT forest management division, told a recent media briefing, reports Cabin Radio. More helicopter support, improved communications between government and communities, and more hires to the fire line are all in the works.

In rural Alberta, farmers are planning ahead to protect their livestock and outbuildings, with some saying they would defy evacuation orders.

Yellowhead County farmer Jens Jorgensen “was frustrated by how authorities handled last year’s evacuations, and he’s hopeful that there’s a better plan this year should wildfires pop up again,” reports The Weather Network. If there isn’t, and they do, he plans to stay put.

“Nobody’s gonna protect our property once we’re gone,” Jorgensen said. “And I can do everything in my power to protect it if I stay.”

In B.C., where 13 firefighters with the Wilson’s Landing Fire Department lost their own homes to the McDougall Creek wildfire, “all the firefighters have chosen to keep living and working in their community, as they stare down another potentially destructive wildfire season,” writes CBC News. And though none of their houses have been rebuilt eight months later, amid lengthy insurance and permitting processes, community members have acted to support the fire team, raising more than $175,000 in a GoFundMe campaign while collecting and offering them clothes and meals.

“There’s always a note, something that shows their appreciation and that’s just above and beyond,” fire chief Paul Zydowicz said.

Zydowicz saw his own home engulfed in flames while out fighting a blaze. “It was numbing,” he told CBC. “That’s a tremendous hit on an emotionally personal level and also to the fire department… When you have our weekly practices and you see the faces and you know what they’ve lost, that hurts.”

This year, the upside is that there is less fuel—undergrowth and dead trees—than before, he added. But he said he’s worried about other areas that have yet to burn.

Echoing fire preparation officials in B.C., and across the country, Cliff Buettner, director of forestry and emergency services for the Prince Albert Grand Council, is urging First Nations communities around Saskatchewan to “fire-smart” all buildings, especially homes, to ensure they don’t become further fuel for advancing fires.

Vigilance, better communications protocols, and clear evacuation plans are being urged for especially small and rural communities across Ontario. Preparations for wildfire season had already begun in the northwestern hamlet of Red Lake in mid-March, two weeks ahead of the season’s official start date, CBC Thunder Bay reported at the time. Similar efforts are now under way in Nova Scotia.

‘Proactive’ fire management

For Canada to adapt and be ready for future fire seasons, transforming forest and fire management will be critical, Lori Daniels,  Koerner Chair at the Centre for Wildfire Coexistence at the University of British Columbia (UBC), told UBC News in March.

Mandating the forestry industry to prioritize landscape resilience, reintroducing prescribed fires as part of the reforestation process, and planting fire-resistant, deciduous species to hamper the spread of wildfire is crucial, Daniels said. “Public education through the FireSmart program is also a high priority.”

B.C. is taking action with 61 prescribed or cultural burns on its docket this year, triple last year’s quota, reports Bloomberg.

Mathieu Bourbonnais, assistant professor of earth, environmental, and geographic sciences at UBC Okanagan, said the Canadian public has much to learn from First Nations about “proactive” wildfire management strategies—those that help us learn to “co-exist” with fire—like mechanical thinning and prescribed burns.

Bourbonnais urged policymakers to make more dollars available for such proactive strategies. “The current $30-million mitigation budget falls short compared to the billion dollars that firefighting cost B.C. last year,” he said.

Politicians respond

B.C.’s 2024 budget pledges $154 million in wildfire fighting operating expenses and another $21 million in capital funding “to support additional wildfire response, recovery, and infrastructure resources.” The funds include $56 million in increased contracting funds for helicopter and air tanker services, $60 million for wildfire risk reduction and fuel management, and $38 million “to support stable, year-round resourcing, including fire crew leaders and front-line staff.”

Saying he was “profoundly worried” by the upcoming wildfire season, B.C. Premier David Eby also announced his government’s decision to set aside $10.6 billion in contingency funds over the next three years.

Alberta’s budget included an additional $55 million in operational expenses for firefighting. Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen, who announced the new funds, also pointed to a $2-billion contingency fund, up $500,000 from last year.

In Ontario, concerns are growing that northern communities are especially ill-prepared for the summer ahead. The government’s $5,000 recruitment bonus did “little to boost the number of people signing up to fight fires,” writes Global News. At last count, 46 of 189 wildfire crews have yet to be filled, and several of the aircraft used to fight wildfires are out of commission, awaiting repairs.

Quebec will provide $25 million to hire more firefighters over the next five years. With the new dollars in hand, the non-profit Société de protection des forêts contre le feu (SOPFEU) “is hoping to expand its ranks this year to be better prepared across Quebec by hiring 160 people, including 80 firefighters in the next two years—increasing its staff by 32%” reports The Weather Network.

SOPFEU is establishing a permanent base of 14 firefighters in Lebel-sur-Quévillon, a community of 2,000 that had to evacuate twice under threat of wildfire last summer. “This will help me sleep,” said Mayor Guy Lafrenière.

This story was originally published by The Energy Mix and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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Comments 1 to 1:

  1. I read of these fires and their terrible impact locally and their downwind smoke impact on its bigger neighbour over the border. Reading more information here, the similarities with some of our Australian Climate Change experiences was apparant, although some of our aussie flora is adapted to fire, probably not so Canadian flora. The catastrophic fires burnt approx a similar area size too -17million hectares and incinerated over a billion animals in the case of the conservative Australian fire estimate                                                  

    Both countries have a terrible colonial history which is still felt in these times- their massive reliance on sinks in the land sector obscures its ongoing support for fossil fuels. Our rating remains "Insufficient."  and Canadian govt? 

    If when "the chickens come home to roost" would apply only to the biggest fossil fuel users and exporters-

    77% of climate scientists agree at least 2.5degrees Celsius is our worlds best effort  It's kinda impressive how many people didn't get the point of the video: she isn't saying that the goals aren't legitimate or necessary, she's pointing out the disconnect between what's potentially necessary and what is actually being done

    We are fiddling while Rome burns or up the creek without a paddle in the case of the biggest flood in my local 150yr history- 2yrs after those horrendous fires-over 2m higher!

    Our societies are comfortably numb, till an outrage from the grass-roots, it's keep us divided and change channels when faced with a major reality check.


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