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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Wildfires keep thousands evacuated in Canada, even as conditions improve

A firefighting helicopter douses wildfires in Shellburne County in Nova Scotia, Canada, on May 31.  (Nova Scotia Government/Xinhua)
By Justine McDaniel Washington Post

More than 100 wildfires were burning in Canada on Wednesday, and thousands of residents in rural communities choked by the worst blazes remained evacuated, even as improving weather allowed firefighters to make some progress.

With hundreds of thousands of acres burning, 35 fires were listed as out of control by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center as of Wednesday afternoon. The day brought cooler temperatures and minor precipitation, which helped keep a massive blaze near Fort Nelson, British Columbia, from spreading further and slightly calmed the aggressive activity of a wildfire near Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Still, firefighting crews were laboring Wednesday to contain the out-of-control blazes after working overnight in both areas. Nowhere near enough rain was forecast to compensate for the region’s prolonged drought.

“The change in the weather gives firefighters a good window to make progress, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to contain this,” Alberta wildfire information officer Josee St-Onge said at a morning news briefing.

Canada is seeing a highly active start to the spring fire season, fueled by drought, dry conditions and overwintering fires – blazes that began last year, smoldered underground through the winter and are now spreading. Smoke swept across Canada and into the U.S. Midwest this week, but the air quality in the affected U.S. states began improving Wednesday.

Canada experienced an unprecedented fire season last summer, with blazes burning more than 45 million acres. The smoke from the fires affected air quality in Canada and large areas of the United States and emitted a record amount of carbon for Canada.

More than 130 active fires were burning as of this week, most of which are under control. They are concentrated in northwestern Canada, mainly in northeastern British Columbia and western Alberta, with a handful of large, out-of-control fires also burning around the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border.

For one community in the Fort McMurray area, ongoing evacuations were a tense reminder of a traumatic wildfire in 2016. On Wednesday, with the wildfire covering more than 50,000 acres, Alberta authorities told evacuated residents to prepare to remain out of their homes until at least May 21.

“As residents rush to leave their homes, I know this will bring back difficult memories,” Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said at a morning news briefing with province officials. “This evacuation is a stark reminder that our province lives alongside the threat of wildfires.”

About 6,600 people were evacuated Tuesday, in addition to others who left voluntarily, said Jody Butz, emergency management director of the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo.

Though high fire activity was expected to continue, winds were projected to push the fire away from the town of Fort McMurray, regional authorities said at a news briefing Wednesday morning.

Rural communities in British Columbia’s northeastern corner also have faced displacement, mainly around the area of Fort Nelson, where the Parker Lake fire is burning just southwest of the town.

That fire covered about 20,800 acres Wednesday afternoon, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service, with ground and air crews working to combat it.

It began Friday and prompted evacuations through Sunday. An estimated 2,800 residents remained under the evacuation order, said Jaylene MacIver, spokesperson for the Northern Rockies Emergency Operations Center.

The blaze grew Monday, expanding to the southwest and southeast, but calmer weather Wednesday was keeping it from spreading as crews worked to establish containment lines, said Sarah Hall, a spokesperson for the B.C. Wildfire Service.

“Conditions have definitely improved for today,” Hall told the Washington Post. “The fire continues to burn within its perimeter, (but) it’s unlikely for spread to occur with these conditions.”

The fires sent smoke into the Midwest early this week, including Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. On Wednesday, the air quality across the region had improved from Code Orange to Code Yellow, or moderate.

Wildfires are often ignited by lightning or human action. As climate change dries out many areas, more regions are susceptible and fires are more likely to spread and enlarge, scientists say.

With plenty of dry vegetation to fuel the fires, ignition from the fires that survived the winter, and hot, dry and windy weather, the conditions in the affected parts of Canada were ripe for an active spring season, said Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.

“The drought’s still with us, and it means the fuels are dry, so it’s easier for fires to start and spread. Once they start burning, it’s hard to put them out,” Flannigan said. “Because of these overwintering fires, we already have ignition … so when the wind picks up, away we go.”

How much fire activity the summer brings will depend on rainfall and weather, he said, though he predicted 2024 won’t be as severe as 2023’s record-breaking season.

Some years, the region sees strong rainfall in June, which would quiet the fire season for the rest of the year; warm weather, by contrast, could bring lightning and continued dry conditions, which make it easy for fires to ignite.

In the next few days, a little rain and cooler weather should help quiet the big fires, he said. “But,” he said, “we need lots and lots of rain before we get out of this drought situation.”