Canadian wildfire smoke hits Minneapolis, May 2023. Canadian wildfire smoke hits Minneapolis, May 2023. Source: Chad Davis - Wikicommons / cropped from original / CC BY 2.0

The wildfires in Canada kept burning all winter, and a new season is set to be catastrophic, as climate feedback loops accelerate disaster, warns John Clarke

Canada’s 2023 wildfire season was unprecedented in its scale and devastation, and there are strong indications that this year may also be extremely severe. Speaking at a press conference, the Trudeau government’s Natural Resources Minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, warned that we ‘are preparing for the worst … Early projections for 2024 indicate the potential for early and above-normal fire activity over the spring months as a result of ongoing drought forecasts.’

A government press release amplified this warning, declaring that ‘Canada may be at risk of another “catastrophic” wildfire season due to extreme temperatures boosted by El Niño.’ Wilkinson also noted that widespread regional drought conditions create the prospect of ‘early and above-normal fire activity over the spring months.’

Wilkinson left no doubt as to the key driving factor that is at work, when he stated that wildfires ‘have always occurred across Canada. What is new is their frequency and their intensity. And the science is clear: the root cause of this is climate change.’ Environment and Climate Minister, Steven Guilbeault, promised that he is working to ‘protect Canadians from the impacts of climate change that are already with us’ and the press release offered the dubious assurance that, ‘we’ll get through this together.’

Zombie fires

Global News reports that some seventy fires are burning across the country at present and a spokesperson for Natural Resources Canada indicated that most of them are ‘holdover fires from 2023 that smouldered through the warm, dry winter we experienced and have become more active as spring progresses.’ A CBC report in February, however, painted an even grimmer picture of the fires ‘that simmer below the surface in winter [that] are sometimes called “zombie fires” or “overwintering fires”.’

According to the CBC, there were ‘still 92 active fires in British Columbia and another 54 in Alberta — holdovers from last year — according to the latest figures from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center. Others [were] also active in the Northwest Territories.’ Sonja Leverkus, an adjunct professor researching wildfires at the University of Alberta, noted that a ‘lot of people talk about fire season and the end of the fire season, but our fires did not stop burning in 2023 … [they] dug underground and have been burning pretty much all winter.

For its part, the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) issued a statement last month ‘encouraging BC residents to be prepared for some potentially difficult months ahead.’ It warned that ‘the provincial snowpack remains very low, averaging 34% below normal across BC. Nearly half of the province’s 34 water basins were severely depleted due to warmer temperatures and a lack of precipitation, further elevating concerns for this wildfire season.’

Another CBC report shows that the problem is by no means confined to western Canada. It quotes Philippe Bergeron, a spokesperson for Quebec’s fire monitoring agency, who warned that it’s ‘going to get dry very quickly, so it’s going to become very, very easy to start a fire … We have an early spring that is coming, a mild end of this winter and the snow cover that is disappearing faster than usual.

Last December, Global News took stock of the wildfire season that had just ended, describing it as ‘like no other in Canada’s history … With roughly 18.5 million hectares of Canadian land burned, [it] was the worst wildfire season ever recorded. It surpassed the previous record of 7.6 million hectares scorched in 1989.’

It is certainly true that the impacts of the fires in 2023 were of historic proportions. In August, as more than a thousand fires raged and communities were evacuated across the country, CNN reported that the ‘Northwest Territories capital Yellowknife – home to about 20,000 – and several other Northwest Territories communities have been ordered to evacuate as crews battle 236 active wildfires, and a massive fire creeps toward the city and a major highway.’

An article in The Conversation last September noted that ‘Canada’s seemingly endless wildfires in 2023 introduced millions of people across North America to the health hazards of wildfire smoke.’ In June, ‘New York City residents hunkered down indoors for several days as a smoky haze hung over the city, turning the skies orange and exposing millions of people to the worst air quality in the world.’ In Chicago, ‘the highest air quality index levels in the … area in at least 24 years’ were experienced.

Wildfire smoke is causing levels of the particulate matter pollutant, PM2.5, to increase in the US, reversing improvements that were previously obtained ‘thanks to environmental regulations and cleaner engines, factories and power plants.’ PM2.5 ‘can exacerbate asthma, worsen existing respiratory and cardiac problems and leave people more susceptible to respiratory infection.

Though the impact of the spreading smoke was very serious in the US last year, the effects in Canada were even more extreme. The thirteen most polluted cities in North America during 2023 were all in Canada and its air quality was worse than that of the densely populated United States for the first time ever. The annual average PM2.5 concentration was found to be two to three times the safe level recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

While the 2023 wildfire season was considerably more ferocious than any previous year, it is important to understand that it happened as part of an intensifying pattern. Writing in the Tyee last year, Andrew Weaver, a professor in the school of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria, noted that he and other colleagues had concluded as long ago as 2004 that the ‘area burned by forest fires in Canada has increased over the past four decades, at the same time as summer season temperatures have warmed [and] human-induced climate change has had a detectable influence on the area burned by forest fire in Canada over recent decades.’

Taking stock of the climate-induced warming trends that are at work, Weaver suggested that the 2023 season ‘pales in comparison to what we can expect in the years ahead from ongoing global warming arising from greenhouse gas emissions released through the combustion of fossil fuels.’

Destructive course

The Trudeau government may pose as climate aware and environmentally responsible but, even as wildfires burn out of control and the burning seasons intensify, fossil-fuel interests and their political enablers chart a thoroughly destructive course. Last month, Statistics Canada reported that annual ‘production of crude oil and equivalent products rose for the third consecutive year, up 1.4% to 286.4 million cubic metres in 2023, resulting in the highest volume since the start of this data series in 2016. Based on the latest available international date (2022), Canada remained among the top four oil producers worldwide.’

As the prospect of another disastrous wildfire season looms, we must appreciate that this situation is but one manifestation of the rapidly intensifying climate crisis. The link between carbon emissions and global warming has long been understood, but the rapidity and volatility of the process are much greater than was previously imagined, and wildfires are a case in point. Last September, the Guardian noted, with regard to Canada’s fires, that this ‘summer, however, as flames devoured one of the largest contiguous stretches of woodland on the planet, 2bn tonnes (2.2bn tons) of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere … Emissions from Canada’s record-breaking wildfire season are probably triple the country’s annual carbon footprint…’ Under conditions of climate disaster, effects are being transformed into causes that then increase the scale and intensity of what is unfolding.

An article in this month notes that ‘March 2024 is the ninth consecutive month of record-setting heat, each month hotter, and according to NOAA scientists, ocean temperatures for 2023 were off the charts.’ Gavin Schmidt, the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in the US suggests that in ‘general, the 2023 temperature anomaly has come out of the blue, revealing an unprecedented knowledge gap perhaps for the first time since about 40 years ago, when satellite data began offering modellers an unparalleled, real-time view of Earth’s climate system.’

This ‘knowledge gap’ shows that climate change is marked by a web of cause and effect and that it involves transformative ‘tipping points’ that are far more complex and much harder to predict than has been supposed. The pattern of disastrously worsening wildfire seasons in Canada is an alarming indication that the climate crisis is spinning out of control and 2024 is likely to provide further proof of this dreadful reality.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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