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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Canada’s astonishing and record fire season finally slows down

By Ian Livingston Washington Post

A season that roared to life in early May barely let up for months. By late June, this year had already seen a typical season’s worth of wildfires burning. Giant blazes raged through the heart of summer, leading to an international response to aid-weary firefighters. When the season should have been all but over, late September instead featured some of the season’s quickest growth in charred acreage.

But finally – though dozens of fires persist in various smoldering forms – the amount of newly charred land has slowed to a trickle, and near-future fire threats have vastly diminished as winter begins to settle in.

Staggering stats

About 45.7 million acres have burned in 2023, surpassing the previous high of 17.5 million acres based on records dating back to 1983, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center.

While composed of roughly 6,500 individual blazes, here are some helpful ways to think about the countrywide total:

It is roughly equal to the annual totals from 2015 to 2022 combined.

It is just shy of nine times the annual average, or about 80 times more than the country’s very quiet 2020 fire season.

If all the scorched land was combined, it would entirely cover North Dakota, plus a couple hundred-thousand acres somewhere else.

Despite records tending to cluster, this year’s tally surpassed the previous modern high mark by more than 2.5 times.

As might be expected given such stats, the impacts were far-reaching and unprecedented across recent history. Unlike most years, the extent was unusually expansive, stretching from coast to coast.

Since much of Canada is unpopulated, numerous large conflagrations were able to burn nearly unchecked as drought deepened in the west and hot conditions settled on parts of the east.

Firefighters from nations all around the globe – including many from the United States – poured in to help throughout the summer. Four of the six known deaths across the summer season were among those battling blazes.

In the sparsely populated Northwest Territories, the 20,000 residents of the provincial capital of Yellowknife were evacuated as multiple fires neared. About 70% of that province was evacuated at one time or another during the season. Some towns, such as Enterprise, were all but fully destroyed.

In addition to the countrywide record, many provinces destroyed their previous high marks, including:

• British Columbia: 7 million acres burned, more than double the old record.

• Alberta: 5.5 million acres burned, or nearly 2 million acres ahead of the old record.

• Quebec: 12.8 million acres burned, more than double the old record.

• Nova Scotia: 62,000 acres burned, about six times the old record of around 10,000 acres.

Summer of smoke

With nearly nonstop major fires, smoke production was prolific and unyielding across summer.

In addition to seemingly endless days with choking air in the source regions, dense plumes of smoke traveled to the Lower 48 with frequency, turning Canadian air masses that would otherwise be pleasantly cool, ugly with poor air quality.

Calgary was among the first major cities to be draped in a dense haze, facing dark days in mid-May. The initial of several massive smoke outbreaks wafting well south of the international border came during the first third of June, delivering full-day hazardous air to portions of eastern Pennsylvania amid a larger region of very unhealthy or unhealthy readings.

Indeed, the worst air quality on record was tallied in one or multiple episodes across Canada and into the northern United States.

A Washington Post analysis at the end of June showed hundreds of locations reached their all-time highs for smoke pollution from wildfires and others have joined the list since.

Much of the urban Northeast from Washington to near Boston was included, as was much of the Midwest from Detroit to Chicago and Minneapolis.

By October, the season should be totally over. But this year smoke was drifting over Florida and other parts of the South, in their worst session of such this season.

Studies on the summer of smoke are still in their early days, but one recently published found that emergency room visits for asthma symptoms spiked when smoke particulates moved in. For several days, visits were well-above the average during the period overlapping the first major smoke outbreak in the Northeast, peaking on the same day the smoke did, June 7.

If looking for a quick glance at the whole memorable season, cartographer Peter Atwood put together an animation using NASA GOES-FP and NASA FIRMS data. It rather dramatically shows fires and smoke daily, from the onset through the end of this historic year.

Will it continue next year?

While winter brings a reprieve, Alberta Wildfire warns that some of the largest blazes may crackle underground through the cold season. Some scientists refer to these as “zombie fires.” The agency notes that it will continue to monitor via infrared temperature measurements and other tools until it is clear the risk has totally disappeared.

Prospects of an intense El Nino this winter may also mean more unusually warm conditions are ahead. This is especially so in the county’s west, where high pressure or warm Pacific flow often dominates to the north of an active subtropical jet stream during similar winters.

Odds are also good that warm conditions persist into next year, as the year following an El Nino tends to be toasty globally. All these things considered, there is little meaningful predictive skill for fire season this far out.