Record wildfires in Canada should be a wake-up call, experts warn

Montreal, Canada Do you smell smoke? That’s the question people in Canada have been asking themselves this week as hundreds of wildfires are burning in what has been described as an unprecedented start to the 2023 Canadian wildfire season.

Tens of thousands of people in communities across the country have been forced to evacuate as firefighters fight to contain the flames that have so far burned more than 3.8 million hectares (9.4 million acres).

But the emergence of smoke-filled and discolored skies over parts of Canada that aren’t typically affected by wildfires has sparked widespread public concern and calls for authorities to better prepare for a problem that experts say will only get worse.

There’s this eerie sight of very smoky skies. Puts a yellow and grayish filter on the sun and sky. There’s also a smell of burning wood, Caroline Brouillette, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, said in an interview from Ottawa, the Canadian capital, on Wednesday.

It really hints that the climate crisis is happening here and now, Brouillette told Al Jazeera.

Long-term health effects

Images shared on social media this week showed orange-tinged skies over Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, where a thick haze blocked views of the CN Tower and the downtown skyline of Canada’s largest city.

In New York City and Washington, DC, hundreds of miles from the wildfires burning north of the US-Canadian border, smog has filled the air.

Air pollution alerts have been issued in places across Canada and in northeastern and midwestern US states, fueling questions about the effects of wildfires on the health of millions of people in North America.

A woman jogs along the Hudson River shortly after dawn on June 7, 2023, as haze and smoke from the Canadian wildfires hangs over the Manhattan skyline [Mike Segar/Reuters]

From the darkness over Yankee Stadium to the smoky haze that darkens our skyline, we can see it, we can smell it, and we’ve heard it. And it was alarming and troubling, New York City Mayor Eric Adams told reporters Wednesday.

This is an unprecedented event in our city and New Yorkers need to take precautions, said Adams, who urged residents to stay indoors, close windows and limit outdoor activities.

While this may be the first time we’ve experienced anything like this on this magnitude, let’s be clear: it’s not the last. Climate change [has] accelerated these conditions. We must continue to reduce emissions, improve air quality and build resilience.

Jill Baumgartner, an associate professor in the School of Population and Global Health at McGill University in Montreal, said pollution levels in the city and in Canada more generally were three to four times higher than usual from the wildfires.

The biggest health threat from wildfire smoke comes from these tiny microscopic particles you breathe in, Baumgartner said, explaining that they can lead to a variety of problems, from stinging eyes and runny noses to chronic heart and lung disease. .

We tend to think of wildfire smoke as an acute or short-term exposure, but we have seen these events occur more frequently. Fires are more common. They are happening over longer periods of time, he told Al Jazeera. We probably need to start thinking about it [as]What are the long-term health impacts of wildfire smoke?’

Hundreds of fires lit

The Canadian government said Wednesday that more than 400 wildfires were burning across the country, including 239 considered to be out of control. More than 20,000 people were displaced by the fires.

As of Wednesday morning, nearly 160 fires were burning in the province of Quebec alone, where thousands of residents have been ordered from their homes in the western Abitibi-Temiscamingue region.

But wildfires have swept many places across Canada since May, from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick on the east coast to Alberta, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories in the west.

We haven’t seen a season like this in our modern record, said Mike Flannigan, research chair for predictive services, emergency management and fire science at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.

Flannigan explained that climate change is largely responsible for the record wildfires as warmer temperatures have extended Canada’s wildfire season and increased lightning strikes, which are generally the cause of about half of all wildfires in the country.

A hotter atmosphere also dries up fire fuels, such as vegetation on forest floors. These drier fuels then make fires easier to start and spread and lead to higher intensity fires that are difficult or impossible to extinguish, Flannigan said.

This is our new reality, he told Al Jazeera. They were on a downward trajectory. Things will get worse and worse and worse.

Smoke rises from a fire in the Canadian province of Alberta on June 4, 2023 [Alberta Wildfire/Handout via Reuters]

Wakes up

As the fires continue to burn, Canada has deployed the military to several areas and has asked other nations for assistance.

The federal government also said this month that it is investing millions in wildfire prevention programs and training, including in indigenous communities that have been hard-hit. Ottawa is also coordinating with local and provincial partners and plans to roll out a satellite system to monitor fires, smoke and air quality, the government said.

We are in the worst year we have ever had and our resources are scarce, but we will continue to be there as much as possible, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in French during a news conference on Wednesday afternoon.

He acknowledged that Canada should expect more frequent extreme weather events in the coming years and said the country must give itself the capacity to respond to minimize the impact of these emergencies.

And that is by continuing our fight against climate change, by continuing to reduce our emissions, by continuing to transform our economy in a way that creates good jobs and protects future generations, he said.

Flannigan said Canada needs to take a more proactive approach to wildfires in the future, including imposing wildfire bans and closing forests to recreational users and industry before the wildfire episode is upon you.

Authorities should also be better prepared to deploy additional firefighting teams and resources in advance. Fire is a multifaceted issue that needs a multi-pronged approach, he said. There is no silver bullet or vaccine that will make this thing go away. We really have to learn to live with fire.

Meanwhile, environmental advocates are calling on Canada to do more to address the issue fueling recent scenes of wildfire devastation: climate change. The country, home to the Alberta tar sands, was the world’s fourth-largest oil producer in 2020 and activists say it cannot be a climate leader while continuing to develop oil and gas projects.

This must be a wake-up call, said Salome Sane, a climate activist at Greenpeace Canada, noting that the fires should prompt the Canadian government to accelerate divestment from fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels are the main cause of the global climate crisis, and our reliance on them is clearly exacerbating extreme weather events in general, and this season in particular, the frequency and severity of wildfires, Sane told Al Jazeera.

We really need to address the root cause, which is the exploitation of fossil fuels.

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