Wildfire risk remains well above average in Canada this month

OTTAWA — This is on track to be the worst fire season Canada has ever seen and the risk of wildfires will remain well above average across most of the country throughout the summer, the federal government warned Monday.

OTTAWA — This is on track to be the worst fire season Canada has ever seen and the risk of wildfires will remain well above average across most of the country throughout the summer, the federal government warned Monday.

At the speed with which the fires are spreading across the country, the total area burned could exceed the annual record high for the next week.

“The situation remains serious,” Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said as he and six other federal cabinet ministers gave an update on the situation.

“The images we’ve seen so far this season are some of the most severe we’ve seen in Canada and the current forecast for the coming months indicates the possibility of continued above-normal fire activity.”

As Blair spoke in downtown Ottawa, smoke from the fires north and west of the city had settled over Parliament Hill, clouding the iconic Peace Tower in a gray haze.

On Friday afternoon there were 324 fires across Canada.

As of Monday morning, it had risen to 413, and by late afternoon, the total jumped back to 424.

More than 250 fires were burning out of control in nine provinces and two territories.

As of June 5, there have been more than 2,200 fires this year.

So far, they have burned 36,000 square kilometers of land, an area five times the size of Banff National Park and more than the annual totals of all but four of the previous years.

The largest amount of land burned in a single year was 46,000 square kilometers in 2014.

Over the weekend, an average of about 1,800 square kilometers per day burned. If that pace holds, the 2023 total will surpass 2014 within the next week.

A new fire risk forecast shows the risk remains well above average in parts of all provinces and territories except Newfoundland and Labrador.

The risk in most of Labrador remains above average, while the risk in Newfoundland is only average.

There is very little change in the forecast for western Canada for July or August, but the risk is expected to decrease substantially in the Maritimes and eastern Quebec. In most of Ontario and western Quebec, the risk is projected to move from “well above average” to “above average.”

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson called the new forecast sobering.

“It shows us that this year’s already devastating season could well get worse,” he said.

“All provinces and territories will need to be on high alert during this wildfire season.”

There are now nearly 1,000 firefighters helping fight the blazes from across the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Additional firefighters are also expected from France, Blair said.

The severity of the season is unusual not only because of the number of large fires burning, but also because they are burning in almost every province at the same time.

Mike Norton, CEO of the Northern Forestry Center at Natural Resources Canada, said having fires from coast to coast in the spring is not normal.

Most years, the Canadian Inter-Agency Wildland Fire Center coordinates the exchange of firefighters and equipment not only internationally, but also between provinces. That is proving to be a challenge this year.

Norton said that with international help there should be enough crews.

The military has been called in to help, with 150 soldiers in both Alberta and Quebec and 200 in Nova Scotia.

NDP MP Richard Cannings, a party critic of emergency preparedness, said although the government is working as fast as it can, it took several days to train soldiers in the firefighting skills they needed and to get the equipment they needed. Nova Scotia needed.

“Because of how we set this up in Canada, we weren’t ready,” he said.

Cannings said the federal government should be able to respond at any time.

Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre said his party is “open to looking at any solution that will help the country better coordinate its water pumps and other assets so that those assets are where they are needed, when they are needed, as quickly as possible.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government is focused on getting through this fire season.

“We are going to get through this together and our government will continue to be there with whatever it takes to keep people safe and provide support,” he said.

However, he acknowledged that with climate change increasing the risk of fire, there are lessons to be learned and decisions to be made so that Canada can better respond.

“This is a scary time for a lot of people, not just in Alberta, but across the country, including across the Atlantic, North and Quebec as well.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 5, 2023.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press