Wildfires stoked by drought and scorching temperatures are expected to pose a danger for the rest of the summer, after an early season in which a record-breaking amount of land has already burned, forcing more than 155,000 people to evacuate their homes and necessitating historic levels of international support.
Government officials made the forecast Thursday, as Canadians across the country sweltered under a bout of intense heat and weather warnings.
“This is going to be a long, tough summer,” Michael Norton, director general of the federal Canadian Forest Service’s Northern Forestry Centre, said at a news conference.
“It is anticipated that many parts of Canada will continue to see above-normal fire activity,” he added, noting that Atlantic Canada is at slightly less risk.
As of July 5, wildfires had burned 8.8 million hectares in Canada. That is 11 times the 10-year average for this point in the summer.
The country blew past the record for total area burned by wildfires in a single season on June 27. And the hottest months are still to come.
The amount of area burned isn’t the only measure by which this wildfire season is exceptional. The number of fires is up 20 per cent over the 10-year historical average. That figure that is expected to rise, Mr. Norton said.
And the number of people evacuated from their homes because of wildfires – more than 155,000 – is the highest in any year in the past four decades. Currently, there are still more than 4,500 evacuees across Canada, more than two thirds of them from First Nations.
Most of the country faced sweltering temperatures Thursday, with southern parts of Ontario and Quebec enduring the third day of a heat wave that has made the air feel as though it is 40 degrees, when humidity is factored in. Heat warnings are also in effect in British Columbia and parts of the Northwest Territories. The Atlantic region is experiencing hot, sticky weather that is expected to stretch into the weekend.
Inuvik, south of the Beaufort Sea in the Northwest Territories, remained under a heat warning after the temperature there hit 33 degrees on Tuesday. This was a local daily temperature record, according to Environment Canada records dating back to 1957.
Wildfires have raged simultaneously in Eastern, Western and Central Canada this spring and summer, which Mr. Norton described as very unusual. While wildfires that swept through Nova Scotia last month are now considered contained, as of Thursday there were 143 blazes still burning in Quebec, 100 in B.C. and 109 in Alberta, with dozens considered out of control.
Smoke from the wildfires has, at times, blanketed large areas, prompting air quality warnings in most of Canada’s biggest cities, including Montreal and Toronto, as well as the eastern and central United States. Wildfire smoke is a major source of pollution and can travel long distances and affect large populations, depending on the prevailing winds, according to Marie-Ève Héroux, manager of air quality assessment for Health Canada, who also spoke at Thursday’s news conference.
Wildfire smoke – a mixture of gases, particles and water vapour – can cause mild to serious symptoms, such as irritation, chest pains, coughs and shortness of breath, she added.
“It’s really the fine particles, the ones that are very small and not visible to the human eye that get deep into our lungs and bloodstream – those are the ones we’re most concerned with in terms of health risk,” Ms. Héroux told reporters. “When we breathe in wildfire smoke and these small particles, what we can see is effects related to the respiratory system.”
People who already have heart and lung conditions are particularly at risk from exposure to wildfire smoke, but Ms. Héroux said everyone’s health is at risk, especially when concentrations of pollutants are high for a considerable length of time.
About 3,800 provincial and territorial firefighters are working right now to extinguish wildfires around the country. The Canadian Armed Forces are assisting, along with firefighters from 11 foreign countries, including recent arrivals from South Korea. Work is continuing to identify other possible partners, Mr. Norton said, and memorandums of understanding were signed with the United States and Portugal last month.
Despite the widespread burning, the federal government says it has the capacity to deal with the problem. “We continue to have sufficient resources to fight fires,” Mr. Norton said, adding that the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre is in constant communication with international partners to sustain the country’s firefighting ability until the end of wildfire season.
It’s unclear how much wildfires will cost Canadians this year, but Mr. Norton said the cost of fire suppression is close to $1-billion annually. This year’s expenses will no doubt surpass that and hit a new record, he added. The total economic burden, factoring in effects on forestry, mining, energy production, transportation, infrastructure and public health, is also unknown and will be much higher than usual, he said.
Officials cited El Niño, a climate phenomenon that can create dry conditions in Northern Canada, as a factor in the increased risk of wildfires.
With a report from Canadian Press