What causes most wildfires in Canada, and why we’re ‘primed’ for a lot more

Click to play video: 'Bracing for a busy wildfire season'
Bracing for a busy wildfire season
WATCH: Bracing for a busy wildfire season – Jun 9, 2023

Canada is seeing an “unprecedented” wildfire season so far, and summer hasn’t even begun.

Though it is not yet determined what exactly has caused a number of this year’s earlier-than-usual and more widespread wildfires, there are two common reasons wildfires begin.

Wildfires typically start either from lightning or from human activity, according to fire expert and Queen’s University fellow Edward Struzik.

Struzik said that lightning ignites between a third to a half of the fires seen in Canada, but the majority of cases are human-caused.

Click to play video: 'Unprecedented wildfire season “most definitely” linked to climate change: expert'
Unprecedented wildfire season “most definitely” linked to climate change: expert

The latter could be related to industrial activity, such as vehicles travelling through forests that may have a hot muffler and come into contact with really brittle kindling or dry grass, as well as people dropping cigarettes or letting a campfire smolder, he said.

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Struzik said that May and June are prime times for wildfires to begin as grass, twigs and branches may be dead or dried up over the winter and haven’t sucked up the moisture and become green and more fire-resilient like in the summer months.

“If you have lightning or some careless human beings trigger it, there’s a lot of fuel on the ground,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Wildfire smoke continues to cause poor air quality in Ontario'
Wildfire smoke continues to cause poor air quality in Ontario

Other conditions in forests can also contribute to fires, including mature trees that get killed by beetles and other bugs and end up lying on the ground, acting as extra kindling, as well as unusually hot and dry weather with little rain, which is becoming more common.

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Struzik said that Western Canada has seen such weather this year.

Those conditions, including windy weather, make it almost impossible for firefighters to get on top of fires quickly to get them under control, according to Struzik.

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Nova Scotia reported that out of the 152 wildfires in the province in 2022, the majority can be linked to human activity. Those include 33 that began from land clearing and slashing, 31 that were intentionally set and 20 from campfires.

Alberta is experiencing its most active wildfire season in 40 years, that province’s fire officials said.

Of the 76 active wildfires burning in Alberta Thursday, the breakdown sits at 10 human-caused and 22 from lightning, while 41 remain under investigation.

Canada is currently on track to see a record amount of land burned this year, the federal government said on Monday.

As of midday Thursday, there were 431 fires burning in nine provinces and two territories. That was down from 441 Wednesday, with Quebec extinguishing 10 fires since in the last 24 hours.

The number of out-of-control fires also fell, to 234 on Thursday from 256 on Wednesday, including a change in status for more than a dozen fires in Quebec.

Wildfires have been burning in many areas of Canada, with Alberta, Nova Scotia and Quebec so far receiving federal help.

The intense wildfire activity is causing hazardous levels of smoke to drift southward to major cities and into the U.S.

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New York City reported air quality levels among the worst in the world on Wednesday as the city was blanketed by haze, giving the metropolis an eerie orange glow.

A man talks on his phone as he looks through the haze at the George Washington Bridge from Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Wednesday, June 7, 2023. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Unfortunately, the specter of wildfires won’t be going away any time soon, Struzik said, as the planet continues to warm due to climate change. He said a one-degree increase in temperature can equal about 12 per cent more lightning.

“We can’t dial back the clock, the world is warming,” he said.

“So we’re going to see things becoming more and more primed for a lot more fires.”

The forecast for the rest of 2023 isn’t hopeful in avoiding more wildfires.

Natural Resources Canada has said that there’s an elevated risk of wildfires in every province and territory, except Nunavut, over the summer. El Nino is also expected to occur this summer, which will drive temperatures up further and create drier conditions, Struzik noted.

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It may be too early to tell what caused many of the wildfires seen this season, although the Donnie Creek wildfire in B.C., which started in May and is the second-largest wildfire in the province’s history, is suspected to have been caused by lightning or another natural reason.

Click to play video: 'Wildfires force 11,000+ people in northern Quebec from their homes'
Wildfires force 11,000+ people in northern Quebec from their homes

Struzik said elsewhere in Canada, there hasn’t been too much lightning activity, so it’s safe to say that most of the fires seen so far have been human-caused.

Though there aren’t any quick solutions to prevent wildfires from happening, Struzik recommends more controlled burns to allow for vegetation to grow back healthier, leaving them less likely to turn into the tinder-dry conditions that can easily produce out-of-control fires.

“This is really getting unprecedented,” he said.

“I’m afraid we’re heading into a world in which we’re going to see fire become much more common.”


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