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Meteorologists warn of longer, more destructive seasons amid unprecedented fire year - The Weather Network


Published on Aug. 1, 2023, 1:56 PM

Large fires burning in Western Canada might last longer into fall, and even smolder through winter

The wildfire records in Western Canada just keep falling.

First, this spring was the most destructive in Alberta's history in terms of area burned. Now, it's the province's most destructive year on record, with more than 1.7 million hectares blackened and charred by nearly 900 fires.

Just two weeks ago, British Columbia blazed past its annual record for area scorched. Right now, the biggest of the nearly 500 fires raging across the landscape has burned an area larger than Prince Edward Island, breaking yet another record for the size of a single fire.

Canada 2023 Wildfires: Hectares burned as of August 1, 2023

The area burned thus far is the equivalent of the size of Greece (The Weather Network)

Mike Flannigan, a fire science expert at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., describes this year as "uncharted territory."

"We've never seen fire like this in our modern record," he told CBC News in a recent interview.

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Keep in mind: It's only July. There are months left for wildfires to burn.

As the toxic smoke from these fires drifts across the continent, at times creating the worst air quality conditions on the planet, experts say that fire seasons in places like Alberta and B.C. are sparking earlier in the spring and burning longer into fall. This, in turn, is changing how provincial governments are planning to fight and prevent them.

Visit The Weather Network's wildfire hub to keep up with the latest on the unprecedented wildfire season across Canada.

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'Fire year'

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According to Flannigan, this new reality brought about by climate change may soon have Alberta facing a "never-ending fire season."

"People in California don't use the term fire season anymore, they call it 'fire year,'" he said.

"To be honest, Alberta is close to that."

Indeed, recent years have seen flames hibernate in the soil over winter, smoldering beneath the snow for months, only to re-emerge in dry vegetation come spring.

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That's what happened in the Fort McMurray fire, which started in spring 2016 and wasn't declared out until the following summer.

More recently, the shift to an El Niño weather pattern is increasing the chances that an already water-starved Alberta experiences drier-than-normal and warmer-than-normal conditions come fall and winter.

CBC: A firefighter from an Alaska smoke jumper unit uses a drip torch to set a planned ignition on a fire burning near a highway in northern British Columbia, Canada on July 11, 2023. The province is currently experiencing its most destructive fire season on record in terms of area burned. (Jesse Winter/Freelance)

A firefighter from an Alaska smoke jumper unit uses a drip torch to set a planned ignition on a fire burning near a highway in northern British Columbia, Canada on July 11, 2023. The province is currently experiencing its most destructive fire season on record in terms of area burned. (Jesse Winter/Freelance via CBC News)

Ellen Whitman, an Edmonton-based forest fire research scientist with Natural Resources Canada, says Alberta has historically had fires in every month of the year.

"Even in December, we have some famous examples when there wasn't very much snow," she said.

What's changing now, Whitman explained, is that the increasingly hotter conditions in tinder-dry forests have led to wildfires becoming more destructive, even as the overall number of ignitions hasn't changed much over the years.

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"It's really the weather conditions that are allowing these events to become so extreme," she said.

EXPLAINER: Prescribed burning can prevent catastrophic wildfires in the future

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VIDEO: Climate change experts predict fires will only get more extreme in B.C.
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B.C. hiring more year-round staff

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This increased threat of destructive wildfires has officials in B.C. changing their response.

"We're going through huge changes right now as an organization because of the current climate," said David Greer, director of strategic engagement and partnerships for B.C. Wildfire Service.

"It's happening very quickly in real time."

Last year, the agency got a $243-million budget boost, an historic uplift to address wildfire prevention.

One major investment was to hire over 100 permanent staff to work in year-round operations.

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According to Greer, these workers' duties include conducting prescribed burns and working with local communities on fire prevention and mitigation.

They can also be tapped to respond to other disasters, such as floods.

"It's such a shifting situation with the climate right now," Greer said. "Who knows, next year could be flooding and tons of precip, so we have to be ready for everything."

Typically, during the warm months in Western Canada, B.C. and Alberta rely on armies of college-aged people to battle forest fires.

B.C. Wildfire Service: The Donnie Creek wildfire is burning north of Fort St. John, B.C. 2023. This massive blaze has scorched almost 6,000 square kilometres of land. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

The Donnie Creek wildfire is burning north of Fort St. John, B.C. This massive blaze has scorched almost 6,000 square kilometres of land. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

RELATED: What’s in wildfire smoke? Toxicologist explains health risks, best masks to use

But with blazes burning beyond the confines of the academic break, it poses recruitment and staffing issues.

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What the new approach in B.C. offers, Greer said, is a clear path to a career fighting wildfires — something that wasn't available to him when he was a young firefighter decades ago.

"Our labour pool in the summer, a lot of that comes from university students, and it's time-limited," he said. "Then there's people that leave university, and they still want to work for [us]. So there's more opportunity now."

In Alberta, there's a legislative fire season, which runs from March 1 to Oct. 31 each year.

Melissa Story, a spokesperson for Alberta Wildfire, says the agency hires over 700 wildland fire positions each season, with contracts able to be extended should fires linger late into fall.

She said that the province also has roughly 300 year-round staff, a component of which respond to wildfires over winter.

What more destructive fires means for forests

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Should the coming years continue to break wildfire records for total area burned, it could end up changing the look and nature of Western Canada's forests, possibly affecting industry and recreation.

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According to Whitman, the forest fire researcher, if areas of Alberta's boreal forest are repeatedly devastated, the trees in those spaces could change from dense collections of conifers to more spaced-out broadleaf species.

"In some cases, these areas that are very severely burned in a very short time period could convert into a sort of grassland," she said.

"Those changes are going to affect the habitat on the landscape and the forests that are available for people to use."

Still, Whitman noted that wildfires have shaped Canada's boreal forest for thousands of years, since the retreat of the glaciers that once covered Western Canada.

In the short term, she said, recently burned woodland areas provide a reduced wildfire risk, which could potentially curb out-of-control fires on the landscape even at times when weather conditions are dangerously warm and dry.

CBC: Hectares burned in Alberta wildfires 2023

Flannigan, the fire scientist, said some agencies in North America are increasingly working with nature and letting large fires burn on the landscape, as long as they don't threaten communities or infrastructure.

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"We often cite area burned, because we have the numbers," he said. "But we should be really concentrating on impact."

"Just because you have a lot of area burned isn't necessarily a bad thing, aside from the smoke, because the boreal forest, typically, has survived and thrived in a regime of semi-regular … high-intensity crown fires."

In both B.C. and Alberta, wildfire agencies respond to every fire. While Alberta takes a "full suppression" approach, B.C. might simply monitor a fire, depending on its location and behaviour.

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This article, written by Jonathon Sharp, was originally published for CBC News.

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