Western Canada wildfires are raging, again

Western Canada wildfires are raging, again
Western Canada wildfires are raging, again

In Alberta, parts of Fort McMurray are evacuating again. In BC, more than 4,000 residents of Fort Nelson and the Fort Nelson First Nation were ordered to flee this week. Thick smoke has already descended on large swaths of the West, from Edmonton to Winnipeg.

It’s a grim — and familiar — start to wildfire season in Western Canada as tinder-dry forests go up in flames.

In addition to the flames, smoke has descended on Edmonton and other communities, leading to air quality warnings. The smoke from Western Canada wildfires descended around the same time during last year’s devastating fire season, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada. Wildfire smoke made headlines last year, as thick smoke cloaked major cities, including New York City, Toronto and Chicago — a rare phenomenon in eastern urban centers.

Around the world, the size and intensity of wildfires are increasing as climate change impacts profoundly.

Mike Flannigan, the BC Innovation Research Chair in predictive services, Emergency Management and Fire Science at Thompson Rivers University, says climate change is the driving force behind increasing Western Canada wildfires.

“Some people won’t like this, but it’s the role of climate change,” he says. “I think BC is a really stark example. From 2017 to 2023, we burned more areas than in the previous 58 years. So yeah, we’re going to see more fire in the future and more smoke.”

Warmer temperatures mean longer fire seasons and increase the likelihood of lightning — a greater fire starter — and sucks more moisture out of the atmosphere, Flannigan says.

Fires burning in Western Canada as of May 14, 2024. Evacuations have been ordered in the Northwest Territories, BC, Alberta and Manitoba as fires encroach on communities. Map: Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center Inc.

Last year shattered records for how much land burned across Canada, and it’s almost impossible to predict exactly what will happen this year, but there are glimmers of hope that it won’t be quite as bad. Fire weather forecasts look positive, according to Flannigan.

The notable thing this year, he says, are the fires that smoldered over the winter in both Alberta and BC. In past years, those would have been dealt with by fire crews in the fall, but those crews were stretched thin late in the season and the hot spots were too vast.

“We’re off to a fast start,” he says.

“It’s more active than average, but it’s not close to 2023.”

Here’s a breakdown of what’s happening in Western Canada, where the vast majority of fires are burning.

Western Canada wildfires: a look at BC

Holdover fires and drought conditions across most of the province — particularly the northeast — have set the stage for BC’s 2024 wildfire season. Little rain and snow fell over the winter and most watersheds across BC never had a chance to replenish. This has led to an early and aggressive start to the season, with numerous new fires flaring up in April and May.

Over the Mother’s Day weekend, the Parker Lake fire near Fort Nelson displaced more than 4,000 community members. At more than 8,000 hectares as of May 15, the wildfire continues to grow and is burning just a few kilometers from the town.

Canada was subjected to its worst-ever wildfire season last year, and the fire season is once again off to an early and intense start. Despite the smoke and flames of spring, one expert says it’s unlike this year will rival 2023. Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal

Holdover fires, the remnants of massive 2023 fires that smoldered in the ground throughout the winter, are also starting to flare up as they get exposed to warm, dry winds. One, called Patry Creek, is just north of Fort Nelson and BC Wildfire Service crews are carefully monitoring its growth.

“In the past, the winter conditions are what put out a lot of holdover fires,” BC Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma told reporters at a May 13 press conference. “In this case, what we’ve seen is that due to higher temperatures and persistent drought … from last year, many of these holdover fires were not put out the way that they normally are.”

According to the BC Wildfire Service, 126 wildfires were burning as of May 16 and conditions in the northeast, where most of the early-season activity is occurring, are creating “aggressive fire behavior and increased rates of spread, which will challenge suppression efforts. ”

Sherry Williams, a meteorologist who works on air quality for Environment and Climate Change Canada, said the weekend of May 10 was the first time this year where the air quality in BC degraded enough for a special statement from the agency. That’s a little behind last year’s first notice, released on May 5.

Western Canada wildfires: a look at Alberta

Much like BC, drought conditions in Alberta are stoking flames and fears for a bad wildfire season, with 23 fires still burning from 2023 after a dry winter.

As of May 15, there were 45 wildfires in the province, according to the province, with two fires near Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie burning out of control. All but one of those 45 fires is burning north of Edmonton.

Statistic from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center show more than 1.4 million hectares have burned so far this year — almost three times as much as this time last year. Flannigan, however, says those figures are misleading.

Climate change is a driving force behind increasingly bad fire seasons, according to Mike Flannigan from Thompson Rivers University. This year, fires left over from 2023 smoldered over the dry winter and reignited this spring. In a typical year, they would have been tamed last fall, but stretched fire crews were too busy battling blazes that continued to burn late into 2023. Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal

Alberta, he says, is counting fires from last year for area burned, and the real figure this year is likely closer to 30,000 to 40,000 hectares, compared to approximately 530,000 hectares at this time last year.

In Edmonton, advisories were issued for air quality over the weekend of May 10, which is comparable to conditions at this time last year, according to Williams. Last year, air quality started to degrade in the north in early May and moved south to the middle of the province, she said.

Fort McMurray, the site of a devastating fire that ripped through the town and destroyed approximately 2,400 homes in 2016, is once again on alert as residents from southern communities evacuate and those from northern neighborhoods https://twitter.com/nuttyskadork/status/1790499630712750542?t=ZtRmUG4N39B3IavwPZ61kA&s=19 before an evacuation order is issued.

Near Grande Prairie, some rural residents were ordered to evacuate, but that was downgraded to an evacuation alert on May 15 and residents were allowed to return home.

Western Canada wildfires: a look at Saskatchewan

The situation for Western Canada wildfires is less dire in Saskatchewan, where nine fires are currently burning, according to the province. Two of those fires were out of control on May 15 and residents of Creighton, near the Manitoba border, were on alert as a fire rages near Flin Flon.

There have been more fires so far this year in Saskatchewan compared to last year, but 30 per cent less area has burned to date, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

Western Canada wildfires: a look at Manitoba

The situation is almost identical in Manitoba, where nine fires are currently burning, with two out of control, according to the province. Both of those fires are near the Saskatchewan border, one near Clearwater Lake and the other east of Flin Flon and eating into Grass River Provincial Park, which forced the evacuation of the community of Cranberry Portage.

Where there’s fire, there’s smoke. Western Canadians have grown accustomed to summers marked by orange skies filled with pollutants that restrict outdoor activities. Wildfires have already brought thick clouds to urban centers this spring. Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal

Evacuees from that community were hopeful they could return home soon, as the fire moved away from the town.

Statistics from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center show the number of fires this year are more than double last year’s total at this time, and more than 35,000 hectares had already burned as of May 14 — compared to just over 2,000 hectares last year.

Western Canada wildfires: a look at the Northwest Territories

The Northwest Territories was ravaged by fire in 2023, with thousands forced to flee and the capital threatened by flames. More than two-thirds of the entire population of the territory were evacuated over the season last year.

Air quality started to plummet in mid-May last year, Williams said.

The fires have started early again this year, with seven currently burning, according to the territorial government. So far this year, there have been 13 wildfires, compared to four at this time in 2023, but the area burned is down significantly, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

The community of Fort Laird, near the BC border, was notified to prepare for the possibility of an evacuation on May 10. As of May 15, the evacuation notice remains in effect.

Fire season in Western Canada is in full swing, with smoke shrouding communities and flames sending residents scrambling for safety. Some fires from last year’s devastating season smoldered through the winter and reignited.

Video: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

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