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As Canada counts the cost of 2023 fire season, experts warn that drought and dry weather ‘loads the dice’ for spring 2024

Press Release

January 2, 2024

The past season demonstrated challenges of the status quo fire management system in preparing for and dealing with wildfire conditions exacerbated by climate change, says Dr. Mike Flannigan, while the federal government has launched a plan to fund the training of 1,000 firefighters.

Continuing drought conditions in Western Canada, a relatively mild start to winter across much of the country, and the lingering effects of El Nino threaten to create ideal conditions for wildfires to ignite this coming spring, experts have warned, as the country contends with lessons learned from the most destructive fire season in its history.

“People are already talking about the 2024 season,” said Dr. Mike Flannigan, B.C. Innovation Research Chair in Predictive Services, Emergency Management and Fire Science. “El Nino is generally milder and drier for many parts of Canada, and if that persists, we’re going to start off with drought conditions in spring. If that’s the case, it doesn’t absolutely mean we’re going to have an active spring fire season, but it loads the dice.”

The country’s 2023 fire season was the most destructive on record. More than 17 million hectares burned in wildfires from April to October, several times the 10-year average of 2.5 million hectares. More than 235,000 Canadians were under evacuation orders throughout the season, six people died, and the Canadian Armed Forces were deployed to assist in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and the Northwest Territories.

Further from the fire front, tens of millions of North Americans’ air quality was affected as the smoke drifted into major population centres such as Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and New York City.

“This was the year that the Canadian landscape took a real hit from extreme weather and climate-related disasters,” said David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment and Climate Change Canada in a Dec. 20 press conference. “This is what climate change looks like, and it’s not pretty.”

The record-breaking wildfire season and the accompanying smoke were the No. 1 and No. 2 “weather stories,” respectively, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada’s annual top-10 list released on Dec. 20.

“It used to be a northern thing, an Arctic thing—skinny polar bears, disappearing ice, and the melting permafrost—but now it’s occurring in our backyards, in our neighbourhoods,” Phillips said, noting that he was shocked by the number of evacuations throughout the year.

Phillips said ongoing dry conditions and a soft start to winter in Western Canada meant conditions were “not looking good at a time you should be recharging the soil moisture, so my sense is that we need precipitation in many parts of Canada.”

Asked about what Canadians could heed from the extreme events of 2023, Phillips said the variability and fluctuation in weather conditions was also a concern.

“Normal weather is what we wish for—that’s where all of the policies, procedures, and practices have been based on, all the building codes are based on normal weather,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve seen any new weather, it’s the same weather that our grandparents had. But what’s different about it is that [the extremes] are different, more frequent, more intense, longer-lasting.”

Flannigan, who is a professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, said Canada’s wildfire response and preparedness shortage became apparent during the last season, with interprovincial resource sharing, the use of the military, and the support of other countries essential in combatting blazes in multiple regions of the country at once.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, more than 10,800 forest firefighters were involved in the 2023 effort, of whom approximately half were from international crews.

Flannigan said the coming fire seasons will not necessarily be as destructive as this year’s, but that similar events would become more common as the climate crisis intensified. He noted that policymakers in British Columbia were in the process of investing in fire management at an extent similar to that in California after the state’s devastating fire season in 2000.

“Training the next generation of firefighters, managers, policymakers, researchers, all of the above” is essential, he said, noting that many of his graduate students were receiving job offers well before completing their studies. “The existing way we fight fires, the status quo, may no longer be viable in today’s world because of climate change, because of the higher expectations from the public, because there’s more development on the landscape.”

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson (North Vancouver, B.C.) announced the launch of applications for the “Fighting and Managing Wildfires in a Changing Climate” program on Dec. 8, which provides $28-million over five years to train 1,000 new community-based firefighters across the country. The program followed a two-year pilot program.

“After the worst wildfire season in our history, the federal government is continuing to work with provincial and territorial counterparts, as well as with Indigenous Peoples, to mitigate and adapt to the worst effects of climate change,” Wilkinson said in an accompanying press release.

Conservative MP Dane Lloyd (Sturgeon River–Parkland, Alta.), his party’s emergency preparedness critic, criticized the program’s deadline of February 2024, stating in a press release on Dec. 14 that “additional help may yet again not be on the way in time for the next fire season.”

“Despite promising 1,000 additional firefighters by the summer of 2022 in the 2021 budget, the Liberals did nothing for a whopping year and a half and completely missed two fire seasons in a row,” Lloyd said in the press release.

Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan (Vancouver South, B.C.), meanwhile, announced $84.3-million to the Northwest Territories on Dec. 20 for assistance in response and recovery costs from the 2023 wildfires. The funding, provided through the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program, followed a wildfire season in which almost 70 per cent of the population was evacuated, including from the territorial capital of Yellowknife.

Northwest Territories’ sole federal MP, Liberal Michael McLeod, said in an accompanying press release that the “government is continuing to demonstrate our commitment to addressing the impacts of this past summer on the Northwest Territories.” The Hill Times reached out to McLeod’s office to ask about the lingering impact of the past wildfire season, but did not receive a response by press time.

For his part, Flannigan is involved in establishing a new Institute of Wildfire Science, Adaptation and Resiliency at Thompson Rivers University. The institute was approved by the university’s board of governors in December, and is intended to provide studies and innovations in preventing, mitigating, responding to and recovering from wildfires.

“The bottom line is there will always be fire in the landscape. How we manage it to minimize the impacts, but allow fire to take its role when and where possible, is the way forward,” said Flannigan. “This is a timely institute to address pressing needs of Canadians, communities, [and] protecting critical infrastructure.”

Thompson Rivers is also part of a joint U.S.-Canada Centre on Climate Resilient Western Interconnected Grid, which is intended to boost the resilience of the power grid across western North America from extreme weather events such as wildfires, heatwaves, and floods. The University of Calgary and the University of Utah are co-leading the centre, which was announced in September.

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