What a summer that was: the hottest ever recorded globally and the worst for wildfires in Canadian history.
Dry conditions and warmer-than-usual temperatures helped fuel a long, relentless wildfire season that has, to date, devastated more than 17,500,000 hectares, a 647 percent increase over the 10-year average. Tens of thousands of residents were forced to flee and six firefighters lost their lives battling the seemingly endless flames.
And the fires continue to burn.
The question is: are there lessons to be learned? Can the devastating wildfires of 2023 help us prepare for 2024?
The entire year is on track to be one of the hottest ever recorded. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there is a 93.42 percent chance will take first place and a 99.5 percent chance of being at least in the top five.
To put it in perspective, all of the warmest years in NOAA’s 143-year record have occurred since 2010with the last nine years being the warmest on record.
Added to that, we’re also in the middle of El Niño (a cyclical warming in the Pacific Ocean that, along with the atmosphere, can cause a rise in global temperatures) and that means next summer we could see more of the same. .
“We’ve already broken several global temperature records in the summer,” said Greg Flato, senior research scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). “So my expectation is that we will break even more records next year.”
What’s more concerning, however, is the increasing risk of wildfires, particularly in British Columbia.
According to a recent study published in Nature Communicationsfour of the worst wildfire seasons in British Columbia in the last 100 years occurred in the last seven years: 2017, 2018, 2021 and 2023.
Added to that, Canada Climate Change Reportpublished in 2019, found that as the planet continues to warm, Canada will experience more extremes, including risks of drought and wildfires.
It’s comforting to know that even if 2023 is the hottest year on record globally, that doesn’t mean next year will be another brutal wildfire season across Canada. You only have to look to 2021 to see how the West went from drought and fires to floods.
“Seasonal forecasts are difficult. And forecasts for next year are difficult. But if next year is going to be a warmer year, I would expect the dice to be loaded. It will most likely be an above-average year. [for fires]”said Mike Flannigan, professor and director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta, and co-author of the Nature Communications paper.
But he does not expect another “exceptional” year like 2023.
Another concern, in addition to excess heat, is lack of humidity. Although BC could see a five to eight percent increase in precipitation By the end of the century, it may not be enough to help with wildfires.
“Because [heat’s] “It’s very good to absorb moisture from the fuel: you need even more precipitation to offset the drying effect, and generally for every degree of warming you need a 15 percent increase in precipitation,” he said.
And that’s just not happening.
Looking to the future
With all this information at hand, Flannigan says, going forward, a national firefighting agency would help address the increased risk of wildfires.
“One option is to expand and enhance Parks Canada’s role, because … they already fight fires,” he said. “Just upgrade them to help during those extreme situations, ideally, before things break down.”
Flannigan says provinces asking other provinces for help can be complicated. For example, BC can turn to Quebec, which might be experiencing a relatively quiet fire season at the time. But what happens if an outbreak occurs? The crew you sent will be away for about 20 days and then will need some time off. Who is available to fight the fires in Quebec?
“So you’re always playing this game: ‘I want to help, but I have to protect my home province, my home territory,'” he said.
It says Canada experiences about 6,000 fires a year, half of which are started by humans. Looking ahead, there could be an argument for closing national or provincial parks when the threat of wildfires is high, as Alberta and Nova Scotia did it in May.
Even Kamloops closed its walking parks several times this year. This type of action at the municipal level is another thing that could better prepare us, she said.
There are also things that individual people can do.
“I think the main thing is that we have to be prepared,” said Flato, at ECCC; People should plan what to do if they have to evacuate.
They can also reduce the risk of wildfires by ensuring vegetation does not touch nearby power lines, keeping grass short, and cleaning roofs regularly, as BC’s recommends. smart fire program.
As for what the future holds, Flannigan says the models predicting rising temperatures “have actually been pretty good.”
However, the same cannot be said for predicting the impact of wildfires. These, he stated, have been “grossly underestimated.”
“If you think it’s crazy now, it will only get crazier in the future and [with] more extremes on both ends,” he warned.