Wildfires 2024: Canada ‘preparing for the worst’ after record season last year

Click to play video: 'Canada gears up for potentially ‘explosive’ wildfire season'
Canada gears up for potentially ‘explosive’ wildfire season
WATCH: Canada gears up for potentially 'explosive' wildfire season – Apr 10, 2024

As Canada’s temperatures warm after an unusually dry winter, the federal government says it’s taking measures to ensure last year’s historic wildfire season doesn’t repeat itself.

However, multiple ministers raised concern in a press conference Wednesday that wildfire activity is already at above-normal levels.

“We are preparing for the worst,” Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said.

“Early projections for 2024 indicate the potential for early and above-normal fire activity over the spring months as a result of ongoing drought forecasts,” he said.

Wilkinson was one of four federal ministers who spoke at a press conference on Parliament Hill to provide an update on the forecast for the 2024 wildfire season.

A press release accompanying the conference Wednesday said the government’s early metrics show Canada may be at risk of another “catastrophic” wildfire season due to extreme temperatures boosted by El Niño.

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Wilkinson noted at the conference that the government’s weather trend forecasts anticipate risk and are “not predictors of actual fire activity.”

There are approximately 70 fires currently burning across the country, primarily in northern B.C., northern Alberta and the southern Northwest Territories, according to Michael Norton from Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN).

Norton said at a technical briefing earlier Wednesday that most of the blazes are “holdover fires from 2023 that smouldered through the warm, dry winter we experienced and have become more active as spring progresses.

As May nears, Norton says the expected warmer-than-usual temperatures and persistent drought could begin to increase the risk of wildfire activity in parts of northern Ontario and western Quebec and throughout most of the Prairies.

“I want to emphasize again that this early in the season, the wildland fire forecasts must be interpreted cautiously,” Norton told reporters.

Click to play video: '2024 B.C. wildfire season has started'
2024 B.C. wildfire season has started

Alberta Wildfire said last month that the province’s fire season officially kicked off on Feb. 20 – earlier than the standard start date of March 1.

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So far, at least five new active wildfires have burned in Alberta.

How is Canada preparing for the 2024 wildfire season?

Canada experienced its worst wildfire season last year, burning an unprecedented 18.5 million hectares of land.

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The federal government reminded Canadians in its press release Wednesday that emergencies are managed at the local level through hospitals, fire departments, police and municipalities.

If a province or territory feels as though the emergency is beyond its capabilities, it can reach out to the federal government for assistance, it says.

In order to prevent and prepare for a wildfire emergency this year, the press release says the government has worked closely with First Nations, provinces, territories and “other emergency management partners to complete a robust lessons-learned review.”

Click to play video: 'Canadians warned to prepare for early and stronger wildfire season'
Canadians warned to prepare for early and stronger wildfire season

One of the measures taken to increase readiness this wildfire season is supporting fire agencies across Canada with specialized firefighting equipment, and training 360 firefighters and 125 fire Guardians. Both are part of NRCAN’s Fighting and Managing Wildfires in a Changing Climate fund, which provides $28 million over five years beginning last year.

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“We are supporting wildfire preparedness initiatives, including the acquisition of wildland firefighting equipment and personal protective equipment, wildfire training, and vegetation management projects in priority zones,” the release adds.

Emergency-related initiatives with First Nations include working with partners to incorporate their knowledge into preparedness strategies, and providing advance payments to First Nations communities across the country instead of reimbursing costs. Doing so allows First Nations to better prepare and protect their communities and infrastructure from wildfires, the release says.

Anabela Bonada, a climate science expert at the University of Waterloo, said the federal government’s announcement Wednesday is a positive indication of its preparedness for the wildfire season.

“(It’s) not just waiting for the catastrophe to occur,” she told Global News.

Click to play video: 'New Alberta Wildfire recruits prepare for fire season'
New Alberta Wildfire recruits prepare for fire season

The role of climate change in wildfire predictability

The unusual weather conditions Canada has increasingly been experiencing in recent years have led to heat waves, droughts, heavy precipitation and severe wildfires. The ministers at Wednesday’s press conference attributed these events to climate change.

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“Wildfires have always occurred across Canada. What is new is their frequency and their intensity. And the science is clear: the root cause of this is climate change,” Wilkinson said at Wednesday’s press conference.

Environment and Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault said the federal government is working hard to reduce Canada’s carbon pollution to “protect Canadians from the impacts of climate change that are already with us.”

“We cannot stick our heads in the sand … and pretend that carbon pollution isn’t a problem,” Guilbeault also said at the conference.

He says he encourages anyone who doesn’t support the federal government’s climate change policies to come forward with equally effective solutions.

The federal government said in its press release Wednesday that its focus this spring remains on the “dangerously” dry weather conditions and the threat of another severe wildfire season in Canada.

“Climate change is real, and it is here; we have a plan, are coordinating across all levels of government and making important investments,” the release said.

“We’ll get through this together.”

— with files from Global News’ Sean Previl and Aaron D’Andrea

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