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A Recap of Canada's 2023 Wildfire Season and Predictions for 2024

Just as the smoke settles and the embers cool off from the fires in 2023, Canada is preparing for the new season ahead. The previous year saw the worst wildfire season in Canadian history, causing destruction and displacing communities. It resulted in drought conditions playing a significant role in the extent of the damage caused. With March around the corner, there are already discussions about the possibility of the fire season starting soon. Let's take a closer look at the intense wildfires that impacted Canada in 2023. We will examine the statistics, impacts, and lessons learned from the season. Additionally, we'll peer into the predictions for the 2024 wildfire season to better understand what lies ahead.

2023 Wildfire Season in Review

The 2023 wildfire season for Canada was unprecedented. It all began in 2022 with drought conditions during late summer, which extended into the 2023 fire season. Despite some precipitation in winter, the spring of 2023 created early snowmelt and drought conditions that spread from the central and western prairies in April and led to even drier conditions from Ontario in May to British Columbia by June. This created the ideal conditions for wildfires. By September, it was estimated that 72% of Canada experienced drought conditions, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The extended La Nina is believed to be the cause of such extreme wildfire conditions, leading to extreme drought that intensified three times since 2020, also known as a "triple dip," before it would neutralize to El Nino patterns. This pattern had last occurred between 1998 and 2001.

Here are some key statistics from Canada's National Wildland Fire Situation Report that shed light on the magnitude of the wildfires:

Total Area Burned

Approximately 18.5 million hectares (~45.7 million acres) of land were consumed by wildfires across Canada, making it one of the most extensive wildfire seasons in recent memory. Prior to 2023, the highest area burned was in 1989, which was 7,597,266 hectares (~17.5 million acres). The ten-year average until now was 2,751,161 hectares with 5,597 fires. Quebec had the most area burned at 5.03 million hectares.

Number of Fires

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre National Fire Summary, 6,623 wildfires were reported across the country. Many of them multiplied and showed erratic behavior due to dry conditions and high winds. Most of the fires were caused by lightning activity, although it was actually the lowest recorded in Canada. Despite this, the fires caused by lightning resulted in a large number of acres being burned. Among the provinces, British Columbia and Alberta witnessed the most wildfire activity, with 2,245 and 1,022 fires, respectively.

Impacts on Communities

Wildfires had caused widespread devastation to Canadian provinces, resulting in evacuation orders, infrastructure damage, and significant public health and safety risks. The total number of evacuations is above their 20-year average and is the highest ever recorded in Canadian wildfire history. In comparison to 1980-2007, there were 209,121 evacuees, and during 2011-2018, there were a total of 250,000 evacuees. However, in 2023 alone, there were over 232,209 evacuees.

Stats on the 2023 Fires Season in Canada

Timeline of 2023 Fire Season

Stats on Canada Fires in 2023

2024 Canada Wildfire Outlook

Canada is preparing for the 2024 wildfire season, and the National Interagency Fire Center and Natural Resources Canada have shared their predictions for the upcoming months from February to April. The season may potentially bring hot and dry conditions, as it is an El Nino year, and drought conditions are expected to continue. Fire season in some provinces, like Alberta, has begun, meaning wildland firefighters may need to start as early as March or April. Natural Resources Canada will begin reporting fire predictions for the 2024 season starting March 1st.

Continued Drought Conditions

As spring approaches, there are worries about rising temperatures in areas such as Alberta and Saskatchewan and dry weather conditions in parts of Canada where fires are still burning. However, some regions experienced snowy weather in early February that could potentially alleviate some drought concerns.

Fire Activity

New active fires have been reported in areas that didn't receive enough snow coverage throughout the winter. These fires have continued to smolder from the 2023 season, leading to discussions about whether to classify this activity as above average since it has become rampant all winter. However, with the weather trending in a scattered formation throughout February, it's unlikely to increase fire activity.

Due to potentially inconsistent precipitation patterns, some areas may receive more moisture than others in March. Most regions in Canada are expected to experience warmer temperatures, except for central and eastern prairies, which may have cooler temperatures. British Columbia and Alberta may start to see snow loss due to warmer temperatures, which could result in an early fire season.

Due to drought conditions, Canada may experience higher-than-normal fire activity in April, but generous precipitation could decrease activity.

Wildfires in British Columbia, Canada

Overwintering Fires

There have been several cases of "zombie fires" or overwintering fires in Canada this winter, as reported by BBC Toronto. These fires were caused by embers from fires in 2023 that remained burning under blankets of snow. The snow provides insulation, and the peat moss soil provides nutrients, allowing the fire to smolder slowly without flames during winter. In recent years, this has been a common occurrence in British Columbia, where small-scale fires of about five or six are reported. However, the number of zombie fires has increased dramatically this year, with 106 occurring in January alone. There is a risk that these fires may continue where they left off once the snow melts, which could lead to severe wildfires if they are not contained. Due to winter generally being the off-season for wildland firefighters, there isn't enough support to contain overwintering fires. However, these fires only currently pose a threat if there are drought conditions in the spring.

As Canada reflects on the intense wildfires of 2023 and prepares for the uncertainties of the 2024 wildfire season, it's crucial to take proactive and coordinated action to address the growing wildfire threat. By utilizing fire predictive models and the lessons learned from the previous year, Canada can better prepare for the season ahead and protect their landscapes and communities. Looking ahead, let's draw strength from our collective resolve to confront the challenges of wildfire management and protect the places we call home.

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