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Climate

Fire Season Starts with a Bang

April heat waves bring May infernos.

A world map and fires.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Every year after the snow melts and before the spring rains rejuvenate the landscape, Alberta burns.

It’s a natural cycle; May is “classic wildfire season in Canada” thanks to the dead winter grasses that, once uncovered, turn the landscape into a tinderbox. This year, though, there have already been 395 wildfires recorded in Alberta — over 100 are active, with 36 classified as out of control as of Saturday. Those blazes represent “significantly more wildfire activity, for this time of year, than we’ve certainly seen anytime in the recent past,” according to Christie Tucker, a spokeswoman for the province’s fire agency. She added, “People have called this season certainly unprecedented in recent memory because we have so many fires so spread out.”

So far, nearly 30,000 people have been evacuated from north and central Alberta, while local oil and gas producers have temporarily shut down about 2% of the nation’s production, which is concentrated in the area, as a precaution. According to Courtney Theriault, a reporter for CityNews Edmonton, 2023 is already on the verge of becoming one of the province’s biggest fire years on record. Separately, Tucker confirmed that as of Saturday, some 350,000 hectares (864,870 acres) have burned in total in Alberta since Jan. 1, when usually at this time of year, that number is closer to 800 (1,980 acres).

The “unprecedented crisis” in Alberta is owed in part to a heat wave that broke 34 temperature records in the province last week. Combined with the region’s ongoing drought — the severity of which has been attributed to climate change — the Canadian fires are the latest example of 2023 heat exacerbating an already robust wildfire season.

Earlier this spring in Spain, a period of prolonged drought combined with spiking temperatures similarly resulted in unseasonably devastating fires. While a number of those blazes, which began in March, were attributed to arsonists, the fires have burned more aggressively and expansively than they otherwise would have due to how dry everything has been.

“I was expecting a fire like the ones we normally see in March, which can consume 100, 200 hectares, not the more than 4,300 hectares (11,600 acres) that this one has burned,” one firefighter told The Associated Press. “We are dealing with weather conditions appropriate for the summer and have a fire that is behaving like a summertime fire.” As a Spanish fire ecologist added to the publication, “We are in climatic conditions that favor big fires.”

Fires are also burning in northern Laos, started by slash-and-burn farming but “fanned by drier-than-usual weather in Luang Prabang, Xayabury, and Oudomxay provinces,” Radio Free Asia reports. Over the weekend, Luang Prabang hit 110.3 degrees, beating the previous all-time record of 108.9 degrees set just last month. As The Washington Post explains, “It’s a rather typical heat wave [for the region], characteristic of this time of year, but pushed into record territory when added to the background of a warming world.”

Due to poor firefighting infrastructure in Laos, though, the manmade fires are difficult to contain, spreading rapidly and creating high levels of smog in the process. In late March and early April, the Air Quality Index in Luang Prabang was often over 500, driving away tourists — a major source of business for the region.

Recent heat in California has also raised concerns about fires, although the unusually wet winter in the state has offered at least some reprieve. By late April 2022, for example, there’d already been more than a dozen major wildfires in California, the Los Angeles Times reports, while at the same point this year, there was only one, the Nob fire in the San Bernardino National Forest. But any future heat this spring could begin to melt the snow as well as dry out the state’s super bloom, turning the vegetation into kindling.

In the southern hemisphere, where it is currently fall, Chile’s longest drought in at least 1,000 years combined with a record-breaking heat wave and high winds resulted in a summer conflagration that killed at least two dozen people and left hundreds more homeless. The country’s interior minister blamed the tragedy directly on warming global conditions, pointing out that “Chile is one of the countries with the highest vulnerability to climate change,” Al Jazeera reports.

Though it is tricky to tie any one fire to being “caused” by climate change, what is certain is that periods of heat and drought are becoming more extreme due to greenhouse gases, and the resulting weather patterns create conditions conducive to bigger, more severe, faster, and more destructive fires. And more heat is likely on the way; forecasters from the World Meteorological Organization said recently that they expect an El Niño to develop by the end of summer, meaning “a new spike in global heating and increase [in] the chance of breaking temperature records.”

Our hot, fiery spring might only be a sign of things to come.

Yellow
Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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