There’s no end in sight for Canada’s devastating wildfire season, which has already torched more than 270,000 hectares in British Columbia and over the weekend pumped thick smoke into the air across Alberta, obscuring the Edmonton and Calgary skylines.
More than 150 new fires started burning across Canada during the weekend, according to the non-profit Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, or CIFFC. Its executive director, Kim Connors, told The Globe and Mail on Sunday that this is the most active fire season the agency has seen in years – and there’s no relief in sight.
“This is far from over,” Mr. Connors said. “There’s a lot of work to do. Some of these are big fires and they burn deep. They’re very hot fires and it takes a lot of work to put these fires out.”
Worryingly, he said, numerous fires throughout throughout the country “have the potential to be a Fort Mac-type fire.” That 2016 blaze, nicknamed the Beast, incinerated 589,552 hectares in and around Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta, causing an estimated $9.9-billion in damage.
More than 300 wildfires remained active in British Columbia, with close to 90 evacuation alerts and orders in place, and the province’s entire southeastern area under extreme or high fire danger. The 270,000 hectares of burned land so far is equivalent to half of Prince Edward Island.
As of Sunday afternoon, residents of 2,423 properties were under evacuation orders on the West Coast. Evacuations continued in the province on the weekend, with the Thompson-Nicola Regional District and the Regional District of Kootenay expanding orders for people to leave their home.
The province said accommodations for wildfire evacuees were filling up. It also encouraged anyone who self-evacuated because of smoky conditions to consider returning home, adding that because smoke shifts, self-evacuating to another community won’t guarantee a person’s exposure will be reduced.
By Sunday, the province had 37 fires that were highly visible or threatened infrastructure, the majority of which burned in the Kamloops region.
Smoke from those blazes continued to drift east on the weekend, putting most of Alberta under Environment Canada’s highest possible air-quality risk warning. Almost all of Saskatchewan also languished under air-quality warnings.
Despite the number of large fires burning across B.C., the province is constrained in how many firefighters it can call on from outside its boundaries. Those crews are busy fighting wildfires in their own jurisdictions as the unseasonably hot and dry summer continues, while reinforcements from other provinces and countries are being hampered by pandemic protocols.
Mr. Connors at the CIFFC said only Atlantic Canada and Quebec are able to really help right now.
“They don’t have huge numbers of resources, but they’re giving everything they can, doing whatever they can,” he said.
Karley Desrosiers, a fire information officer with BC Wildfire Service, said Friday that requests for more help have been sent out as B.C. works with the CIFFC to seek more firefighters.
One hundred firefighters from Mexico are slated to arrive in B.C. next Saturday, after a contingent from the same country landed in Ontario this past weekend. Twenty firefighters from Quebec also arrived in B.C. late Friday night to help suppress blazes tearing through the south-central Cariboo region.
“Unfortunately, several provinces and territories are facing heightened wildfire activity levels and the [United] States, as well, are also in extreme fire behaviour,” Ms. Desrosiers said. “In terms of getting resources from other provinces, there’s not a tonne of availability at the moment.”
The crews from Mexico and Quebec will live and work in operational bubbles apart from local firefighters to minimize COVID-19 risks, according to the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety.
Brian Simpson, former head of the B.C. Wildfire Management Branch and now a forestry consultant, said Canada is lucky this year’s wildfire season didn’t occur last year, when the pandemic protocols were even stricter.
Canada’s system for sharing resources is nearly seamless, he said, but this year is unprecedented with massive fires ripping through Western Canada and into Northern Ontario.
“Once you start having multiple jurisdictions, it becomes the perfect storm,” he said.
Mr. Simpson said many of the fires that B.C. crews are able to stop from spreading today will be impossible to catch in two weeks if there isn’t at least a solid week of rain. He said the precipitation is desperately needed because the green underbrush of the forests is close to being fully dried out.
“If this extends into September this could get really ugly,” he said.
Mr. Connors added that while cooler weather and cloudy days can provide some assistance, “the provinces and territories need rain.”
“They need lightning-free rain, and they need rain over a period of days to help with this,” he said. “That’s going to be the saving grace here, because right now, it’s so dry. There is so much drought across the Prairies, Northwest Ontario, British Columbia. It’s really all about the weather. That’s what’s going to determine it.”
With a report from The Canadian Press
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