Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver today.
The numbers tell the story of how unprecedented this year’s wildfire season has been across the country.
Double the annual record of the amount of carbon released in a fire season, with 290 million tonnes, some 25 per cent of the global total for 2023.
The worst fire season on record for area burned, with about 131,000 square kilometres torched across the country, an area the size of Greece and more than that burned in 2016, 2019, 2020 and 2022.
By this week, there were more than 1,000 fires burning in Canada, with about 660 considered out of control.
But after months of this, all those figures can get jumbled into a number salad, bereft of any meaning beyond the understanding that things are really, really, really bad.
In a story today, though, Jane Skrypnek manages to underline vividly just how bad. This year, there have been 148 pyrocumulonimbus clouds recorded around the world, with 129 of them in Canada. A 2022 study published in the journal Nature found that between 2013 and 2021 there were an average of only 60 such events of the phenomenon NASA describes as “the fire-breathing dragon of clouds.”
People who have seen them describe the event as somewhere between hell and Tolkein’s Mordor. Jane writes they are triggered when the heat of an intense wildfire sends smoke high into the air, sometimes as high as the lower stratosphere. When this happens, the pillar of hot, smoky air cools, and a cloud coalesces at its peak.
At the smoky column’s peak, a white, cauliflower-like cloud forms, blocking out the sun. Suddenly, the smoke can be sucked into the chimney of hot air, exploding several kilometres into the sky.
Mike Flannigan, a professor at Thompson Rivers University who studies wildfires, witnessed what the clouds can do during a visit to the Elephant Hill fire near Ashcroft, B.C., in July, 2017. It was, he now recalls, utterly terrifying.
“Even from a distance you hear a roar like a freight train. The winds that were sucking into it were just amazing, the flames were amazing,” he said. “It was just incredibly powerful.”
The winds produced by these cloud formations are extreme and unpredictable. They can spread flames far faster than normal, and launch embers kilometres away, sparking fresh fires. And they produce lighting, which can also pose a fire risk. During the Sparks Lake wildfire, near Kamloops in June, 2021, a pyrocumulonimbus cloud produced 7,000 lightning strikes and started 30 to 40 new fires within a matter of hours, Flannigan said.
Tornadoes are also a possibility, though they are rare. During brush fires near Canberra, Australia, in 2003, a twister of flames sped through the area at 30 kilometres an hour and contributed to the destruction of more than 500 properties.
The intensity of the flames, the sudden shifting of winds and the smoky near darkness such a cloud causes can make firefighting treacherous, both by ground and by air.
“There’s not much we can do about these fires except get out of the way,” Flannigan said.
Mike Fromm, a meteorologist with the United States Naval Research Laboratory and one of the lead authors of the 2022 study, is among a small group of scientists who have access to a private database tracking these clouds.
Because the phenomenon requires a particularly strong source of heat to occur, Fromm said, the numbers are an indication of just how intense Canada’s wildfire season has been this year.
He described 2023′s spike in pyrocumulonimbus events as “off the charts.”
“We have to understand these storms at a local level much better in order for communities to be prepared for and to be safe from them,” he said.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief Mark Iype. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.