Canada’s Wildfires & Climate Change 2021

In Canada, from April to September, the country is used to experiencing a number of wildfires from the Yukon to Newfoundland & Labrador. However, as climate change continues to worsen, the frequency and intensity of these fires are expected to increase, and so is the devastation caused by them – whether to the environment or to human health. This article will briefly explore this.

On average, about 6,000 wildfires occur across Canada each year. While wildfires are natural and integral to forest ecosystems, they can be disastrous when they encroach on residential areas and communities. With densely populated forested areas across the country, much of the nation is at risk of wildfires – more so during droughts and dry conditions. Forest fires are known to devastate communities, infrastructure, and cause fatalities when they get out of control.

Wildfires often start small and can even go unnoticed, but have the ability to spread very quickly and can travel across large areas, igniting trees, homes, buildings and more. On average, in Canada wildfires burn 2.5 million hectares per year – which is almost the size of the province of Nova Scotia. While wildfires occur every summer, the scale and frequency at which they occur continue to increase due to climate change.

With a warming climate and an increase in extreme weather events, Canada’s wildfire seasons have become more intense. In 2021, the number of wildfires in Canada so far has been significant, with 3,925 occurring to date, spanning 1.2M hectares. At present, there are 692 active fires, with 226 categorized as “out of control”, 115 as “being held”, 231 as “under control”, and 120 as “other.”

On the Natural Resources Canada website, there is an interactive map illustrating all available daily data on wildfires throughout the country. The current map displays the data for July 21, 2021 (see figure 3), however viewers can choose different dates and view historical data as well.

Figure 3 – Natural Resources Canada Interactive Map 2021

To illustrate just how large some of these fires are (see figure 3), in Old Crow, Yukon, a wildfire began raging on June 24, 2021, and continues to be labelled as “out of control” – burning across 21,279 hectares of land. So you can imagine just how large that is, it is approximately the same land area as 39 football fields (see figure 4).

Figure 4 – Old Crow, Yukon

Further south in Canada, in Ontario’s Kenora District, there are currently several wildfires burning. Two of the most significant include one that began on May 29th covering 120,786.7 ha and another on June 8th covering 136,361 ha. Both fires are still active and remain categorized as “out of control.” To better understand just how large these two impacted areas are, the May 29th fire is approximately the same land area as 168 soccer fields (see figure 5), while the June 8th fire is approximate to 190 soccer fields (see figure 6).

When comparing the interactive map from July 21, 2021, to those from the same day in 2020 (see figure 7) and 2019 (see figure 8), it is immediately evident that 2021 has experienced an exponential increase in active wildfires.

Figure 7 – Interactive Map 2020

Figure 8 – Interactive Map 2019

Due to the intensity of the wildfires currently burning across the country, on July 20th, Environment Canada issued weather advisories for major cities such as Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Ottawa in addition to the entirety of New Brunswick. As well, a stronger smog warning covered much of southern Quebec, including Montreal and Quebec City. By that night, many of the advisories had been downgraded to “weather statements” regarding the possibility of “high levels of air pollution due to smoke from active forest fires.” As is the case with most forms of smoke, wildfire smoke can be detrimental to human health, causing coughing, headaches and shortness of breath.

Wildfire experts, climatologists, and doctors warn that as the climate warms, Canada is heading towards record-breaking temperatures, and can expect longer and more intense wildfire seasons, and prolonged exposure to smoke. In June 2021, international researchers released an analysis suggesting climate change made the heatwave 150x more likely than it would have been otherwise. So essentially, when it comes to fires in Canada, we can only expect to see more in the future.

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