Canada should be on ‘high alert’ by 2024 after record wildfire season: scientist

Canada should be on “high alert” for 2024 wildfires, a Canadian Forest Service scientist said Friday, as he offered a broad view of last year’s record-breaking season.

Research scientist Piyush Jain stopped short of giving a prediction for the upcoming season during Friday’s briefing. But he presented a series of graphs showing that certain indicators, such as drought conditions and soil moisture, are similar to this time last year.

He also pointed to temperature forecasts that predict a warmer-than-normal start to the wildfire season.

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. “But yeah, I guess most people will be able to figure out that we should be on high alert by 2024.”

Jain spent Friday’s briefing reviewing a wide-ranging, data-driven retrospective of the 2023 wildfire season. More people were evacuated and more land burned last year than during any wildfire season on record in Canada. .

Widespread dry conditions, early snowmelt and lower-than-usual rainfall were some of the factors driving last year’s record-breaking season, he said.

Jain also highlighted research showing how climate change, driven by the release of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels, is also contributing to longer and more intense wildfire seasons.

He cited a study by a team of scientists, including some of his forest service colleagues, that focused on northern Quebec’s wildfire season. That study found that human-caused climate change made it seven times more likely to see a season with the same severity of fires as in 2023, and doubled the likelihood of extreme fire weather conditions.

The wildfires affected “every person living in Canada” and were “etched in our collective consciousness,” he said.

Smoke from wildfires choked skies across Canada, closing schools and outdoor events. Canadians, per capita, experienced eight days of poor air quality, she said, but how dangerous that air quality was and how many days it lasted varied dramatically from place to place.

He said the Northwest Territories had a “staggering” 44 days with “very poor air quality,” while Toronto had 14 and Vancouver four.

Parts of northern Alberta spent 135 days under air quality alerts, so many that a new color had to be added to the colour-coded map that tracks those alerts, he said.

Jain presented data showing that Canadian wildfires in 2023 burned more than 15 million hectares, an area larger than the entire state of New York and almost three times larger than Nova Scotia.

That total is approximately three million hectares less than had been previously and widely reported. He said that’s largely because the detailed analysis excludes some bodies of water, such as lakes, that are not captured by real-time satellite data when fires are burning.

Quebec took the lead with almost 4.5 million hectares burned, followed by the Northwest Territories, Alberta and British Columbia, a record for each province and territory.

Some 240,000 people were evacuated due to the wildfires. Five of the largest wildfire-induced evacuations since 1980 took place last year, including in Yellowknife and West Kelowna.

But Jain said there were fewer total fires than the average year. Twenty of the largest fires of 2023 were responsible for half of the total area burned.

Historically, 75 percent of fires were started by lightning, causing 91 percent of the total area to burn. But in 2023, 59 percent of fires were caused by lightning, causing 93 percent of the total area to burn.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2024.


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