Western Canada, North face an above average June wildfire risk: federal officials

Smoke and flames from wildfires serve as a backdrop for homes across Okanagan Lake in West Kelowna, British Columbia on August 17, 2023. (Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters)

There were fewer wildfires in B.C. and Alberta this spring due to favourable weather

Western Canada and the North are expected to face an above-average fire risk in June, federal officials say.

While British Columbia and Alberta experienced favourable spring conditions that led to fewer wildfires and evacuations, officials warned the situation could change rapidly. They added the wildfire outlook is expected to worsen in the summer.

Julienne Morissette, director of wildland policy research and operations at Natural Resources Canada, said the wildfire situation nationally is at “normal levels for this time of year.”

Morissette said rainfall in many provinces has suppressed many wildfires — but that could change.

“Although the current overall conditions are at normal levels for this time of year, the risk of damaging wildfires remains significant, driven by warm temperatures and drought,” she told reporters during Thursday’s 2024 wildfire season update.

She said Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia face a “higher risk” of wildfires in May.

“I happen to be sitting in Alberta and the situation does look quite different. It is a bit cooler,” Morissette said. “The snow melt has been later. There is quite a bit of precipitation more recently in Alberta.

“All that to say, while it looks more positive, we’re under the effects of significant drought.”

Potential for expansion to Yukon and the Northwest Territories

Canada has 87 active wildfires burning, with six out of control and the rest being held or under control. Most of the active wildfires are in Alberta, B.C. and Manitoba. So far this year, 1.47 million hectares have burned.

Morissette said spring is a critical period for fire activity, particularly in the boreal forest, where tree species like aspen, poplar and birch are more vulnerable to ignition because they haven’t fully sprouted leaves.

While these wildfires tend to be caused unintentionally by human activity, sparks from ATVs, train tracks, or unattended campfires, wildfires in June are typically caused by lightning strikes.

Looking ahead to June, Morissette said the potential for “above normal fire activity” will expand to the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

“As temperatures warm, things can dry really quickly. They look good at this moment,” she said. “That is why we urge Canadians to follow the restrictions that local authorities put in place.”

New frequency and intensity 

In a separate briefing, several federal cabinet ministers spoke about the dangers Canadians should prepare for.

“Unfortunately, this forecasting continues what has become an alarming but somewhat predictable trend of hot, dry summers that present the perfect conditions for intense wildfires,” said Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.

Wilkinson said that while wildfires have always occurred in the summer, “what is new is their frequency and their intensity, and the science is clear the root cause of this fact is … human-caused climate change.”

In 2023, Canada experienced its hottest summer ever, the largest wildfires in its history, drought in the Prairies and floods in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Assessment reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conclude unequivocally that human activities have caused the planet to warm.

The increase in wildfires, Wilkinson said, is a reminder of why Canada needs to continue to double down in implementing its emissions reduction plan.

Parts of that plan, like the price on carbon, better known as the federal carbon tax, have come in for severe criticism from the federal Conservatives and several premiers who claim they increase the cost of living.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Yukon government to review this summer’s wildfire evacuations in Mayo, Old Crow, CBC News

Norway: Smoke from Canadian wildfires forecast to reach Norway, The Associated Press

Russia: New NOAA report finds vast Siberian wildfires linked to Arctic warming, The Associated Press

Sweden: High risk of wildfires in many parts of Sweden, including North, Radio Sweden

United States: Wildfires in Anchorage? Climate change sparks disaster fears, The Associated Press

David Thurton, CBC News

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