Sign In or Create an Account.

By continuing, you agree to the Terms of Service and acknowledge our Privacy Policy

Climate

Why Are the Canadian Wildfires So Bad This Year?

I spoke with a wildfire scientist at the Canadian Forest Service about what’s going on up north.

A forest fire.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The skies over New York City turned orange, and everyone knew why. “BLAME CANADA,” yelled the New York Post on its June 8 cover, one day after the worst day for wildfire pollution in U.S. history.

To be clear: We shouldn’t blame Canada. The wildfires choking the United States are also choking Canada, and it’s Canadian communities that are at the most risk of being destroyed by those fires. Even as the skies over New York start to clear, the fires remain a very real threat to those communities — and they’re an indication that the tools we used to control nature in the past are quickly becoming outdated.

“The basic principle of fire suppression is pretty simple: You’re trying to control the fire, usually with a fire line,” Steve Taylor, a wildfire scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, told me. “You have to build the fire line faster than the fire is building its perimeter. So it’s a bit of whack-a-mole.”

It’s whack-a-mole right now, in particular, because of the sheer number of fires Canadian officials are dealing with. As of this writing there are more than 400 active wildfires across the country, more than 130 of which are in Quebec, which has seen a total of 446 fires this year alone. The still active fires in Quebec are the ones that have been most closely linked to the smoke that’s been making headlines this week.

This year’s fire season, Taylor told me, is especially bad, and there are a few reasons why. The first is because of the weather: Canada had a hot, dry spring, which made forests particularly susceptible to fire. The fires started in Alberta and British Columbia in late April, possibly because of accidental sparks from human activity, and displaced more than 30,000 people. Then they spread to Nova Scotia, Ontario, and, finally, Quebec, where a series of lightning strikes sparked the fires we’re seeing now. (Side note: there’s a small conspiracy theory going around, which I won’t be linking to, that claims the Quebec fires started too close to each other to be a coincidence; Taylor told me the clustered nature of those sparks is typical of a lightning storm, which is corroborated by lightning strike maps.)

Canada’s fire suppression apparatus works differently from the United States. In the U.S., fire suppression is mostly managed by federal agencies, which work with state-level agencies to put fires out. In Canada, fire suppression is handled on a provincial level, and the provinces share resources to put fires out across the country.

Historically, this has worked fine. But there’s one problem: “You depend on not having fire all across the country for that sharing model to work,” Taylor said. “But there has been enough [fire] activity in the other provinces that there are fewer resources available for, say, Quebec.”

Hundreds of firefighters from other countries have already deployed to Canada to help, and on Thursday Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said twice as many American firefighters should be sent to help. The Canadian Armed Forces have also been deployed, and The New York Timesreports there are renewed calls for a national firefighting service within Canada, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has so far avoided addressing them.

“Realistically, we need some rain,” Taylor told me. “Even an inch could rain them out, but less than that would be helpful in just slowing the fire growth.”

Rain has been predicted in parts of Quebec for Monday, which could bring much-needed relief to the region, and Quebec Premier François Legault said on Thursday that the situation is starting to stabilize, in part thanks to reinforcements from abroad. In the meantime, the more than 13,000 residents of Quebec who have been evacuated because of the fires will have to live with some degree of uncertainty.

Attributing events like these wildfires to climate change is always a tricky subject, and these are only the latest in a long line of Canadian wildfires to darken the United States. As far back as 1780, there were mentions of a “Dark Day” blanketing the north. But, Taylor pointed out, previous studies have linked past wildfires in British Columbia to climate change, and wildfire smoke has its own impacts on our climate — a recent study linked the Australian wildfires of 2019 and 2020 to the La Niña that ruled our atmospheric currents for the past few years. What’s happening this year, Taylor told me, is a sign of what’s to come.

“Lots of modeling over the last 30 years suggests there would be increases in burn areas, but you kind of expect that to come gradually,” Taylor said. “So it shouldn’t have been surprising to me. But I guess this was a warning. The question is if this is something we can see in the future.”

Green
Neel Dhanesha profile image

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan.

Sparks

The Electrolyzer Tech Business Is Booming

A couple major manufacturers just scored big sources of new capital.

Hysata.
Heatmap Illustration/Screenshot/YouTube

While the latest hydrogen hype cycle may be waning, investment in the fundamental technologies needed to power the green hydrogen economy is holding strong. This past week, two major players in the space secured significant funding: $100 million in credit financing for Massachusetts-based Electric Hydrogen and $111 million for the Australian startup Hysata’s Series B round. Both companies manufacture electrolyzers, the clean energy-powered devices that produce green hydrogen by splitting water molecules apart.

“There is greater clarity in the marketplace now generally about what's required, what it takes to build projects, what it takes to actually get product out there,” Patrick Molloy, a principal at the energy think tank RMI, told me. These investments show that the hydrogen industry is moving beyond the hubris and getting practical about scaling up, he said. “It bodes well for projects coming through the pipeline. It bodes well for the role and the value of this technology stream as we move towards deployment.”

Keep reading...Show less
Green
Electric Vehicles

Car Companies Are Energy Companies Now

The major U.S. automakers are catching up on Tesla’s power game.

A Silverado EV and power lines.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

It was my first truck-powered cocktail party.

General Motors had gathered journalists at a Beverly Hills mansion last week for a vehicle-to-home show and tell. GM’s engineers outfitted the garage with all the components needed for an electric vehicle’s battery to back up the house’s power supply. Then they tripped the circuit breaker to cut off the home from grid power and let the plugged-in Chevy Silverado electric pickup run the home’s lights and other electrical systems for the remainder of the gathering.

Keep reading...Show less
Blue
Climate

AM Briefing: Biden’s Coal Lease Crackdown

On the future of coal mining, critical minerals, and Microsoft’s emissions

What To Know About Biden’s Coal Lease Crackdown
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: Rain and cool temperatures are stalling wildfires in an oil-producing region of Canada • A record-setting May heat wave in Florida will linger through the weekend • It is 77 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny in Rome today, where the Vatican climate conference will come to a close.

THE TOP FIVE

1. Severe storms in Houston kill 4

At least four people were killed in Houston last night when severe storms tore through Texas. Wind speeds reached 100 mph, shattering skyscraper windows, destroying trees, and littering downtown Houston with debris. “Downtown is a mess. It’s dangerous,” said Houston Mayor John Whitmire. Outside Houston, winds toppled powerline towers. At one point 1 million customers were without power across the state, and many schools are closed today. The storm front moved into Louisiana this morning, prompting flash flood warnings in New Orleans.

Keep reading...Show less
Yellow