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Smoke from the Canadian wildfires has filled US skies with an unhealthy haze for weeks, becoming a hallmark of the summer of 2023. The smoke raises a host of questions, from why the fires have lasted so long to how smoke continues to ruin air quality for tens of millions of people in the US.
For many people, the smoke is worse than any time in recent memory. And there are concerns about whether this could simply be the new normal, whether people in the central and eastern US should simply get used to the idea that their summers will be marked by weeks of smoke instead of blue skies and clear sun.
To get answers about the Canada wildfire, NPR reached out to four experts:
- quinn barberfire science analyst with the Canadian Forest Services in Alberta
- paige fischeran environmental scientist at the University of Michigan
- daniel perrakisfire research scientist for the Canadian Forest Service in British Columbia
- sarah buddprovincial information officer for the British Columbia Forest Fire Service
Here is his analysis of the wildfires, edited for length and clarity:
No, Canada can’t just put out all the fires
“I don’t think the US has enough firefighters for these fires, and Canada certainly doesn’t,” Perrakis said.
Many of the fires have sprung to life in very remote areas, leaving it up to Canadian provinces to decide which fires can and should be fought.
“Canada is the second largest country in the world, and almost half of it is forest,” Barber said. “Much of that forest is remote, untouched desert, and it is very difficult to control wildfires in those areas where there is no road access or any of the necessary infrastructure to support firefighting activity.”
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“All the provinces follow one rule above all else; the number one priority is human life and safety,” Barber said, citing a 2020 document. “There are other protected values like communities, infrastructure and natural resources, and environmental values,” she said. If a wildfire does not put those values at risk, it could be monitored and allowed to burn.
It’s part of a natural cycle for Canada’s boreal forests to burn (more on that below). But the fires can reach dangerous intensity, particularly under current conditions.
“They burn with cup fire behavior,” Perrakis said. Driven by strong winds, he added, “they can spread 50 meters a minute, 70 meters a minute, 20 or 30 kilometers a day. We’ve seen them several times this season.”
In such dangerous places, sending firefighters into the path of the flames is not worth the risk.
“What is important to understand is that the only fires that can burn are those that do not threaten human lives, communities or other critical values,” Barber said.
No, the wind won’t just blow the smoke
Smoke from the flames is affecting people across the US for days on end. Stubborn air circulation patterns have forced tens of millions of people to adjust their daily lives as their communities come under unhealthy air quality alerts.
“I think the most insidious type of effect is the persistence of these weather patterns,” Perrakis said. “If there’s a blocking ridge, a big mass of summer air that dries out all the fuels, in the past it could stay over an area for a week. Now we’re seeing these big ridges stick around much longer. So we have drier fuels, and the circulation and smoke patterns are less dynamic. So things really stick around longer and the jet stream is weaker.”
By the time it reaches the US, much of the smoke remains low, triggering orange and red alerts. Massive plumes of smoke have also reached Europe, but in most cases, the particles have stayed in the atmosphere, alleviating health problems there.
Yes, this has happened before.
“We have documents from the early 1900s that talk about smoky days in American cities, going back to the 1700s. So it’s been one of these things that we’ve had to deal with,” Perrakis said.
Many of Canada’s fires are in the boreal forest, in remote areas north of the area that contains the country’s largest cities.
“Those forests are actually adapted to burn, they evolve to burn, roughly every 100-200 years,” Barber said. “Even if we could stop all the fires, it would be a serious mistake for the ecology of the forest and would only lead to bigger fires in the future.”
“It’s actually beneficial,” Perrakis said. “It does things like help with the cycling of nutrients through the soil and the overall resilience of the landscape. You get this mosaic of different age classes and different types of forests, which is what you want.”
“Some people say, ‘Well, this is climate change. This is terrible. We’ve never seen this before.’ That is wrong. We have seen it many times. But (also) it’s climate change, and it’s much worse than we’ve seen before,” she added.
As for the smoke, he said, “We haven’t been able to do much about it for hundreds of years. And there’s not much we can do about it now, which is not to say that firefighters aren’t putting in a lot of effort. They are.”
Also yes: climate change is making it worse
Wildfire seasons are intensified by climate change, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That applies to Canada, the United States and other countries.
“Increased heat and decreased humidity from human-caused climate change are the mechanisms people should think about,” Fischer said.
Those conditions set the stage for explosive wildfires in areas where trees, brush, debris and grasses become fuel for flames that can quickly blossom from an initial spark into a large wildfire.
“The boreal forest has always been burned. Now the corollary of that is we’re obviously burning more than in the past,” Perrakis said. “Climate change is very significant. We have levels of drought that are, if not unprecedented, then at least in the extreme category, and the fire season (comes) early.”
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That leaves governments and firefighting agencies scrambling to keep up.
“Fire suppression capacity increases linearly every year. But the thing about fire behavior is that it’s not a linear process,” Perrakis said. “It’s about exponential growth and extremes.”
It is the extreme days that claim the largest tracts of land, and they are becoming more common, he added.
And yes, this wildfire season is extremely bad.
“This wildfire season in Canada is unprecedented, the most damaging on record in terms of area burned,” Fischer said.
“We have exceeded 10 million hectares (about 25 million acres) of burned area, an area larger than the country of Portugal,” Barber said.
“What is unusual about this year is that the fires have hit all parts of the country, all at the same time,” he said. “It’s rare that the entire country is seeing this type of fire activity at the same time. The fires in Québec, which are largely responsible for the smoke plaguing the US, have already burned more than 17 times more forest than normal, and we’re only halfway through fire season.”
Canada has been hit by around 4,300 wildfires to date, according to the Canadian Inter-Agency Wildfire Center. British Columbia has been hit particularly hard, as thunderstorms set fire to forests reeling from a long drought.
“We saw about 16 days of consecutive convective activity, with more than 50,000 lightning strikes in a seven-day period,” Rudd said from British Columbia. “Those lightning strikes continue to be the main driver of new wildfires so far this season.”
British Columbia currently has more than 2,000 people responding to the fires, mainly in its northern half.
“There are also more than 300 international personnel in the province currently supporting response efforts, and the Canadian Armed Forces will be supplemented by additional personnel and aviation resources,” Rudd said.
Those boosters will be used to give workers a break, before they return to the fight in Canada’s record-breaking bushfire season.