The latest on wildfires and wildfire smoke in Canada
Hundreds of wildfires, based mainly in Quebec, continued to pose a threat to communities Wednesday and sent harmful smoke across Eastern parts of the continent. Skies were clouded over in many cities in Ontario, Quebec and the U.S. eastern seaboard.
Canada could exceed the largest total amount of burned area recorded in this country in a single year if the current rate of wildfire activity continues, according to Natural Resources Canada. The department released updated data and forecasts Monday showing that, as of June 4, there had been 2,214 wildfires across Canada this year, and about 3.3 million hectares burned. The 10-year average over the same timeframe is 1,624 fires and 254,429 hectares burned.
Follow updates from across the country below.
- Ontario: There are 54 active fires across the province. The premier has made a plea for residents not to light campfires.
- Quebec: About 520 firefighters are battling more than 150 wildfires, while 11,400 people have been evacuated so far and officials Wednesday said this season is already the worst the province has seen.
- Elsewhere in Canada: Authorities are reacting to active fires in other provinces, including Vancouver Island in B.C. and the large Shelburne County fire in Nova Scotia, where rain is helping limit spread of the fire.
- Meanwhile, Environment Canada has issued special air quality advisories for large swaths of Ontario and Quebec, while Washington, D.C., New York and Detroit registered among the world’s worst cities for air quality on Wednesday as wildfire smoke from Canada wafted south.
More than 15,000 people expected be under evacuation order in Quebec
Quebec’s wildfire season is the worst on record, officials said Wednesday, as the number of evacuees was expected to rise to more than 15,000 by the end of the day.
About 11,400 people have already been forced from their homes because of persistent and unpredictable wildfires, Premier François Legault told reporters in Quebec City. The northern Cree town of Mistissini, located 550 kilometres north of Montreal, would likely be evacuated later on Wednesday, adding another 4,000 people to the evacuee list, the premier said.
The most troublesome areas, he said, were in northern Quebec and in the western Abitibi region, where significant rainfall wasn’t expected until Monday. Residents shouldn’t expect to be able to return home before the middle of next week, Legault said.
“I want us all to be realistic so that we don’t see things through rose-coloured glasses,” the premier said. “For the moment, we do not expect rain for the next few days.”
Evacuation orders were issued Tuesday night for the northern Quebec town of Chibougamau and the nearby Cree community of Oujé-Bougoumou. The northern town of Chapais, Que., risked being evacuated again, and some parts of Senneterre, Que., were also threatened by the flames, Legault said.
Chibougamau Mayor Manon Cyr asked the town’s roughly 7,500 residents to gather in Roberval, Que. — about 250 kilometres away — if they didn’t have friends of family elsewhere who could take them in. In Oujé-Bougoumou, about 800 people were ordered to leave and advised that shelter would be provided nearly 400 kilometres to the southeast, in Chicoutimi, Que.
Quebec’s forest fire prevention agency said Wednesday more than 150 forest fires were burning — and slightly under 100 of them were considered out of control. More than 457,000 hectares have burned so far this season, the most since the province started keeping records.
“In the history of (the agency) – nearly 50 years – we’ve surpassed the worst year on record,” Natural Resources Minister Maïté Blanchette-Vézina said. “It’s a situation that’s unprecedented.”
There were about 520 fire personnel on Wednesday fighting fires in the province, helped by about 150 members of the Canadian Armed Forces, Legault said. They could cover about 40 fires at a time, he added.
Legault said he hoped to have 1,200 firefighters on the ground in the coming weeks, drawing from firefighters in New Brunswick and France in the coming days. He said the province was negotiating with the United States, Portugal, Spain and Mexico for additional resources.
The premier said the wildfires on the province’s north shore were under control, one day after residents of Sept-Îles, Que., were allowed to return home. As well, Legault said a Hydro-Québec substation near Baie-Comeau, Que., was no longer under threat from fires.
The Canadian Press
Smoke blankets Ontario, Quebec, harming air quality
Hazy skies tinged with an eerie yellow glow greeted millions of Canadians in Quebec and Ontario again Wednesday as the smoke from hundreds of wildfires continued to cause air quality warnings in Canada’s most populated corridor.
In the morning, Environment Canada’s air quality health index listed Ottawa and Gatineau, Que., as the worst in Canada, followed closely by the eastern Ontario cities of Kingston, Cornwall and Belleville.
Residents in those cities were encouraged to limit outdoor activities, and those most vulnerable to the smoke were told to avoid them altogether.
The smoke was so thick in downtown Ottawa that Gatineau’s high-rise office towers were barely visible just a few hundred metres away across the Ottawa River.
In a bizarre twist of fate, on a day when air quality was among the worst the country has ever seen, it was national Clean Air Day in Canada.
“I want to recognize the air quality statements that have been issued by Environment Canada because of wildfire smoke,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Parliament Hill.
“People across the country are being affected. We’re seeing vulnerable people at risk, outdoor events cancelled, kids having to be kept inside at recess.”
Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said more than 400 fires were burning across the country Wednesday, and more than half of them were still out of control.
The amount of land burned surpassed the 40,000 square kilometre mark, making 2023 Canada’s fourth-worst fire season on record before the summer has even officially begun.
At the current pace of burning, the all-time record will be surpassed by next week.
“By all measures, this is perhaps the worst year we have experienced with wildfires,” Blair said.
In Ottawa and York Region north of Toronto, school boards cancelled outdoor recesses and sports leagues cancelled games and practices. The Toronto District School Board said all strenuous outdoor activities would be rescheduled or moved indoors when possible.
The federal government is focused on battling the fires for now, but Trudeau acknowledged Wednesday his government is discussing the idea of creating some kind of national disaster response agency.
“We need to continue to make sure we are doing everything possible to keep Canadians safe when these extreme weather events happen, but also make sure we’re doing everything we can to predict, protect, and act ahead of more of these events coming,” he said.
“So we continue to discuss and look at new mechanisms and new ways of doing that.”
A senior government source told The Canadian Press those discussions include analyzing models like the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the United States.
FEMA leads the U.S. government’s programs to prepare for, prevent, respond and recover from natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other major incidents.
Initial disaster responses are currently the responsibility of municipal and provincial governments, which can ask for federal help when needed. Most often, that involves deploying the Canadian Armed Forces.
When the military responds in Canada, that work falls under Operation Lentus.
CAF documents show that the operation was triggered 21 times between 2018 and 2022, not including 118 requests for help from the military in 2020 to respond to COVID-19.
Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre has warned that the high demand on his troops for disaster assistance is straining the military’s overall capacity.
More than 500 soldiers and military specialists are currently deployed in Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia in response to the fires, along with equipment including waterbombers and other aircraft.
The Canadian Press
Air quality in American cities plummets
Washington, D.C., more than 1,000 kilometres south of the fires, awoke Wednesday to a haze clouding the sky and enveloping its monuments. The scent of campfire hung in the air and some commuters donned KN95 masks against the acrid scent.
The city registered an air quality index score of 188, roughly on par with Delhi and worse than some perennial smog hotspots such as Jakarta and Shanghai. Local officials issued a Code Red alert. New York and Detroit also registered among the world’s worst cities for air quality on Wednesday.
Some flights into the New York City area were delayed and some briefly halted because of reduced visibility.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was slowing traffic but lifted a groundstop on flights from the upper Midwest and East Coast bound for New York LaGuardia International Airport on Wednesday afternoon.
The FAA said Newark was currently experiencing delays averaging 82 minutes while average LaGuardia ground delays are about two hours and departure delays are about 30 minutes.
Congressman Dan Goldman, who represents a New York City district, said he had received e-mails from his children’s school advising that students wouldn’t be allowed outside because of the hazardous air. He said the fires were another reminder of the need to fight climate change, which has made the forests more vulnerable to conflagration.
In decades past, Mr. Goldman said, New York and Washington didn’t get hit by such intense smog from fires such a distance away.
“I don’t remember this happening from Canadian wildfires,” he told The Globe and Mail outside the Capitol. “This is no longer about the future of our planet. This is about the present.”
Mr. Goldman said he hoped being directly affected by climate change would spur more congressional action. Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act put money into green energy subsidies, but Mr. Goldman argued the country had to do more, including overcoming climate denial by some members of Congress.
“They’re breathing this air today, as well, just like we are,” he said. “My hope is that starting to actually have those who don’t either experience the effects of climate change or don’t believe in climate change, will start to come around and realize…we need to do something about it.”
The White House said Wednesday that U.S. President Joe Biden has been receiving regular briefings on the wildfires in Canada since last week, and that the country has sent help north of the border to help fight the blazes.
Karine Jean-Pierre, Mr. Biden’s spokesperson, said the U.S. has sent 600 firefighters to Canada, along with water bombers. She said the administration has been in touch with the Canadian federal government over the crisis. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the White House homeland security advisor, has been the point-person on the response.
The poor air quality because of the fires “is certainly getting worse” over the years, Ms. Jean-Pierre said. “It is yet another alarming example of the ways in which the climate crisis is disturbing our lives and our communities,” she told a White House press briefing.
By afternoon, the air quality in New York City was the worst of any major city in the world, with pollution hitting 353, by far the worst on record for the city.
Images showed Venusian-looking skies over parts of New York, with buildings engulfed in a yellow-tinted haze.
Adrian Morrow in Washington, with a report from Reuters
Stop lighting campfires, Ontario premier says
Ontario Premier Doug Ford urged everyone in the province Wednesday to refrain from lighting campfires, as 54 wildfires burned across the province and smoke from fires in Quebec degraded air quality.
Half of the fires are started by lightning strikes and the other half are caused by human activity such as not properly extinguishing campfires, Ford said in the legislature.
“I’m asking every Ontarian: please do not light any campfires,” Ford said. “We’re out there, all the firefighters are out there I should say, fighting against these wildfires … we will throw every resource we can to make sure we put these fires out.”
Ford was responding in question period to NDP Leader Marit Stiles, who said climate change is making the fire season worse.
“I asked the premier today to just simply go on record and acknowledge that … climate change is real, that the fires that we’re seeing across this province – especially on a day like today, which is Clean Air Day, ironically – that this is linked to climate change,” she said after question period.
“I want the government to do that because I want the premier to acknowledge that they have a responsibility in how we’re going to mitigate climate change.”
Ford said he was “in shock” that Stiles would politicize the wildfires, and noted they occur every year.
Much of the province is under a fire ban, though not all of it, and Ford said his message extended across Ontario.
Opposition leaders said there should be a full fire ban across Ontario, but Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry Graydon Smith said the province implements fire bans on Crown land, and municipalities can assess their own situations.
“Throughout most of eastern, central, northeast and northwest Ontario, there is a fire restriction and ban in place,” he said.
“But I think the message to everybody is clear that this is a very delicate situation, people need to take a level of personal responsibility, the rules apply to them, they need to make sure that we’re following them to ensure that we do not have any unintentionally set, man-made fires.”
Ontario has 142 fire ranger crews and a fleet of 28 aircraft to fight fires, including nine heavy water bombers, and crews are responding in full force to manage the fires, Ford said. Four water bombers from Minnesota are assisting right now, Smith said.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said there are 54 active fires, including 29 not under control. As of Wednesday morning, 13 new fires had been discovered and fire rangers extinguished six fires on Tuesday.
Environment Canada shows a moderate, high or very high air quality risk across most of the province, with values especially high in eastern Ontario. Officials have said that a lot of the smoke seen in Ontario comes from wildfires in Quebec.
The Canadian Press
Huge N.S. wildfire ‘being held’ after 11 days
Emergency officials in southwestern Nova Scotia say the record-breaking wildfire in Shelburne County is being held, 11 days after it roared to life near Barrington Lake.
The Shelburne County East Emergency Management Office issued a statement late Tuesday saying the fire, which grew to be the province’s largest on record, was not likely to move if cool and wet conditions persisted.
Fire crews continue to extinguish hot spots even though the area has been soaked by about 100 millimetres of rain since last Friday, which is about as much rain that falls in an average month.
As of today, those in Shelburne County under evacuation orders are being asked to contact the municipality to book an appointment during which they can learn more about the status of their properties.
On Tuesday, Natural Resources Minister Tory Rushton said about 60 homes and cottages and another 150 structures had been destroyed in Shelburne County, which is about 200 kilometres southwest of Halifax.
Dave Rockwood, a spokesman for the department, said the fire had not grown since Saturday but added that the recent rains weren’t enough to soak through the ground and extinguish covered embers.
The Canadian Press
N.W.T. First Nation allows return to reserve
The K’at’lodeeche First Nation says residents can return to the reserve in the Northwest Territories more than three weeks after they were forced to leave their homes due to a wildfire.
Residents of the reserve, home to about 300 people, along with the nearby town of Hay River, where more than 3,000 people live, were ordered to evacuate on May 14.
Community members were allowed to return to Hay River, which did not sustain damage from the fire, on May 25, while the wildfire continued to burn on the reserve.
The wildfire, which is now classified as being under control and was last mapped at about 32 square kilometres, damaged more than a dozen buildings on the reserve, including the First Nation’s band office.
The First Nation says it is still in a state of emergency and there is no public access to the reserve.
It says power, water and sewer services have yet to resume.
The Canadian Press
Wildfire closes key Vancouver Island route
A small but aggressive wildfire on Vancouver Island is burning beside the only major highway linking Port Alberni, Tofino and Ucluelet to the rest of British Columbia.
The route is closed until further notice as the nearly one-square-kilometre blaze spreads in steep terrain south of Cameron Lake, not far from Cathedral Grove, home to some of Canada’s oldest and tallest trees.
The B.C. Wildfire Service says heavy equipment, helicopters and crews are attacking what is believed to be a human-caused fire.
A statement from the Transport Ministry says a detour will route traffic to Lake Cowichan through Bamfield using gravel forest-service and industrial roads, which have no cell service, gas stations or washroom facilities.
The statement says “drivers are strongly encouraged to avoid travel in the area unless essential.”
“The detour route extends travel by four hours and includes difficult driving conditions,” the statement says. “For drivers who must travel for essential purposes, the province urges preparation and patience.”
It says vehicles weighing less that 14,500 kilograms will be permitted on the detour corridor.
Crews have also jumped on two new fires south of Dawson Creek in northeastern B.C. that were spotted Tuesday following a lightning storm, including one that has already charred nearly 38 square kilometres, prompting an evacuation order and alert for an area that encompasses the community of One Island Lake.
The other new fire, closer to the Alberta boundary, covers about two square kilometres and is also considered highly visible or a potential threat to public safety because it’s not far from Highway 52.
Starting Thursday, campfires will be banned across B.C. except on Haida Gwaii and in the southeast and northwest corners of the province as high temperatures and drought push the wildfire danger to high or extreme across Vancouver Island, the central Interior and the northeast.
B.C.’s latest fires are in addition to the 3,100-square-kilometre Donnie Creek blaze that continues to burn out of control, primarily affecting work camps and industry between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson.
The wildfire service is reporting more than 80 active fires with most burning in the Prince George fire centre, covering north-central and northeastern B.C.
Games in U.S. cities cancelled due to poor air quality
Poor air quality conditions forced the cancellation of Major League Baseball, National Women’s Soccer League and Women’s National Basketball Association games Wednesday as smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted south.
Millions of Americans were urged to stay indoors up and down the U.S. East Coast and as far west as Ohio and Kansas, as the smoke blanketed cities in a yellowish haze.
MLB postponed games in Philadelphia between the Detroit Tigers and the Phillies and in New York between the Chicago White Sox at the Yankees. Both games were expected to be made up on Thursday.
“These postponements were determined following conversations throughout the day with medical and weather experts and all of the impacted Clubs regarding clearly hazardous air quality conditions in both cities,” MLB said in a statement.
The Washington Nationals said they would go ahead with plans to play the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday evening, as scheduled.
A match that Gotham FC was set to play at home in Harrison, New Jersey, against the Orlando Pride was rescheduled for Aug. 9 as reduced visibility forced the Aviation Administration to slow or halt some flights into nearby Newark Liberty International Airport.
A WNBA game in Brooklyn between the Minnesota Lynx and the New York Liberty, which was set to tip off at 7 p.m. ET, was also postponed.