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Smoke rises from a fire near Indian Cabins, Alberta, Canada, on Friday. This fire, which originally started in the Northwest Territories in 2023, flared up again in recent days due to strong winds and has since burned south into Alberta, according to Alberta Wildfire.
17 May 2024

Rapidly spreading "zombie" wildfires are threatening Canadian towns and once again affecting air quality throughout North America

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Dangerous wildfires have scorched tens of thousands of acres and are threatening multiple Canadian towns, prompting thousands of evacuations and worsening air quality.

 

Photo Credit: Alberta Wildfire
Smoke rises from a fire near Indian Cabins, Alberta, Canada, on Friday. This fire, which originally started in the Northwest Territories in 2023, flared up again in recent days due to strong winds and has since burned south into Alberta, according to Alberta Wildfire.

 

As of May 17, 2024, Canadian wildfires have rapidly spread, scorching tens of thousands of acres and prompting mass evacuations. The early start to the wildfire season has seen daily ignitions and the reactivation of dormant "zombie" fires. Although not yet as severe as last year's record-breaking season, officials warn of an "explosive" year due to worsening wildfire behavior in a warming climate.

 

  • The Parker Lake Fire in northeastern British Columbia expanded from 13,000 to nearly 21,000 acres within a day, threatening Fort Nelson.
  • At least 4,700 people in British Columbia are under evacuation orders, with the majority complying.
  • Manitoba's largest active wildfire has burned over 86,000 acres, leading to the evacuation of more than 500 residents from Cranberry Portage.
  • A large wildfire near Fort McMurray, Alberta, has consumed over 23,000 acres, prompting evacuation alerts for several communities.

 The fires have resulted in hazardous smoke spreading across Canada and into the United States, affecting air quality from the Dakotas through Kansas. Climate change-driven factors, such as prolonged droughts and declining snowpack, are contributing to the increasing intensity and frequency of these wildfires.

 

Dry conditions and strong winds fuel the wildfires

Extremely dry and windy conditions have caused several fires to expand by thousands of acres since the weekend. Despite the prospect of wet weather, gusty winds will continue to challenge firefighting efforts in several provinces through midweek, CNN reports. 

Gusty winds caused the Parker Lake Fire in northeastern British Columbia to expand from 13,000 acres on Monday to nearly 21,000 acres by Tuesday. By early Tuesday morning, the blaze was just over a mile west of Fort Nelson.

At least 4,700 people are under evacuation orders, including residents of Fort Nelson and Fort Nelson First Nation, as confirmed by Bowinn Ma, British Columbia’s Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, on Monday.

By Tuesday morning, Northern Rockies Regional Municipality Mayor Rob Fraser reported to CNN that all but 50 people had complied with the evacuation orders. Fortunately, no deaths or injuries have been reported.

Large wildfires have also triggered evacuation orders in Manitoba and alerts in Alberta. Evacuation alerts indicate that people should be prepared to leave if an evacuation order is issued.

In Manitoba, one of the largest active wildfires in the country had burned over 86,000 acres by Monday. More than 500 residents of Cranberry Portage, located less than a mile from the fire, were evacuated, according to Manitoba officials.

A significant fire about 10 miles southwest of Fort McMurray in northeast Alberta, an area devastated by a wildfire in 2016, had consumed over 23,000 acres by Tuesday after substantial overnight growth. Evacuation alerts were issued for Fort McMurray, Saprae Creek, Gregoire Lake Estates, Fort McMurray 468 First Nation, and Anzac, according to Alberta officials.

Alberta Wildfire Information Officer Josee St-Onge stated on Tuesday that the wildfire "is still out of control" and had "grown significantly to the northeast yesterday and continues to grow in that direction today," driven by winds pushing the blaze toward Fort McMurray.

Due to challenging weather and fire conditions, firefighters were temporarily pulled from the fire line, St-Onge said, though crews continued battling the flames with aerial support.

 

Carbon emission records already broken

Early wildfires mean B.C. has already broken its record for carbon emissions in May, the CBC reports

The wildfire season in British Columbia has kicking off unusually early has lead to a surge in carbon emissions for May, setting records in the province, as reported by a global monitoring agency.

New data from the European Union's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, released on Thursday, reveals that wildfire emissions in B.C. have reached unprecedented levels for the month, surpassing the past 22 years of recorded data.

Mark Parrington, a senior scientist with Copernicus, expressed deep concern over the current scale and intensity of the wildfires in British Columbia, especially considering the impactful wildfires that ravaged Canada in 2023:

"Following the highly impactful wildfires that burned across Canada in 2023, the scale and intensity of the current fires in British Columbia is highly concerning so early in the season", he said.

 

Canada carbon emissions over the years.  

 

Hazardous smoke is spreading over North America again - a repeat of at year?

The widespread fire activity is generating plumes of hazardous smoke across Canada and into the United States. The threat of smoke will persist as long as the fires continue to burn. Hazy conditions and degraded air quality levels were observed Tuesday morning from the Dakotas through Kansas, with the central US expected to remain the focal point for Canadian smoke through at least midweek.

Gusty winds are exacerbating the fires, but the underlying conditions were set over the winter and previous years as the region continues to experience the impacts of human-driven climate change. 

"This region has experienced multiple years of drought, with a below-normal snowpack this past winter," said Ben Boghean, fire behavior specialist for the BC Wildfire Service. "As a result, our forests in the Fort Nelson zone are very receptive to new fire ignitions and rapid rates of spread."

Last year was Canada’s most devastating fire season on record, including in British Columbia, where fires burned through hundreds of homes and an area the size of Maryland, according to the BC Wildfire Service.

Currently, there are more than 130 fires burning across Canada, 40 of which are considered out of control, according to the Canadian Interagency Fire Centre.