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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.
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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those communities — and they’re an indication that the tools we used to control nature in the past are quickly becoming outdated.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.”


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. Read More

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Fighting for clean air and water. Accelerating the green energy transition. Centering economic and racial justice. Engaging future generations of climate innovators.

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