Dozens of fires from Alberta’s record-breaking 2023 wildfire season are still burning, and with dry conditions so far this fall and winter, experts say the province could experience another one just like it.
Conditions last spring contributed to Alberta’s worst wildfire season since 1981.
The province saw 2.2-million hectares burn in 2023, the most since 1981’s 1.3-million hectares that went up in smoke.
“Spring lasted two days, and it was that dramatic swing that caused the fires to get going and you couldn’t put them out there was no moisture there,” David Philips, Environment and Climate Change Canada’s senior climatologist, told CTV News Edmonton on Wednesday.
It wasn’t just Alberta that saw extreme wildfire conditions, Philips said — British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, Quebec and Nova Scotia, too, endured their worst fire seasons on record, adding up to an incredible amount of area burned across the country.
“It was seven times the 10-year average that we normally would get, and two-and-a-half times the worst year that we’ve ever seen in terms of areas scarred in Canada,” said Phillips, adding that Alberta saw 10 times the area burned on average.
“The numbers are just absolutely mind-boggling. In terms of the area burned in Canada, you could take over half the countries in the world and fit them into that burned area in Canada, and you’d still have some burned area left over. Even in the United States, if you take all of the fires they’ve had in the last five years, it would still not equate to what we burned here in Canada.”
Melissa Story, public information officer for Alberta Wildfire, said while the province saw an average number of fires last year, 1,088, some were “significantly large,” leading to the recruitment of international support.
“We had over 4,000 people come from across Canada, the United States and internationally to help support the firefighting efforts here in Alberta,” Story told CTV News Edmonton.
This year’s wildfire season in Alberta is shaping up as a repeat. Phillips said “the vast majority” of the province has seen less than 80 per cent of the precipitation it would normally expected over the last 90 days.
“That’s the recharge season. That’s when you want to get the soil moisture full, you want to get the forest litter wet,” he said. “(Last year), we had some of the coldest March and April on record on the Prairies, and then in May and June, you went from as I say from slosh to sweat … There was no in-between kind of season where you could cut ease into it.”
Story said Alberta will be entering the 2024 wildfire season, which begins March 1, with an elevated wildfire risk, “especially in the northern parts of the province,” adding that 63 fires are continuing to burn from last year.
“Most of them are in the northern parts and most of them are the ones that were of significant size in 2023,” she said. “It’s not unusual for us to have carry over wildfires — we typically get a handful of them every year — but 63 is a lot for us to monitor, so we want to make sure that people are doing their part to prevent wildfires and make sure that we’re not starting any new ones early in the spring.
Alberta Wildfire will have crews in place by April 15, earlier than usual to deal with whatever the season holds.
Snow and a lot of spring rain are what’s needed to prevent a repeat of last year.
“There’s a tendency for El Niño springs to be drier than normal,” Phillips said. “What this one will bring, I can’t tell, but if the past is a guide to the future, we can see that there doesn’t seem to be any relief in sight.”
With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Amanda Anderson
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