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Wildfire season: What can Ottawa expect?

Last summer’s smoky skies could make a return this year, as officials say Canada is on track for a repeat of the 2023 wildfire season – the worst on record.

In Ottawa, wildfire smoke blanketed the capital several times last summer and there were multiple open air fire bans and even concerns Canada Day fireworks could trigger a blaze.

This year has been drier than normal, with below-average precipitation in January, February and March, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada data. January saw 84 per cent of the normal monthly precipitation typically seen in the capital, February saw just 29 per cent of the usual amount of snow and rain, and March was at 61 per cent of the normal level. To date, April has seen 16.9 millimetres of rain and 19.6 centimetres of snow.

Temperatures have also been higher than average, with January, February and March each coming in at around 4 degrees warmer than normal. 

While more rain is in the immediate forecast, it’s unclear how much rain the region could see through the spring and into the summer, as Environment and Climate Change Canada’s long-term forecasts show an equal probability of rainfall being higher than, lower than, or around normal.

Temperature forecasts, however, show a strong tendency toward above normal temperatures in April, May and June and possibly well into the summer. Ottawa has already had two days this month where the high temperature was above 20 C, and the city was considered the hottest spot in Canada for several hours on Wednesday.

Environment and Climate Change Canada probabilistic temperature forecast for April, May, June 2024. (ECCC)

Quebec expecting busy fire season

Last year’s wildfire smoke was largely from forest fires in southern Quebec, where long-term probabilistic forecasts show a strong chance of above-normal temperatures, though expected precipitation remains harder to predict. Authorities in Quebec issued the first wildfire warnings of the year in early March – the earliest ever – for areas that included Gatineau and the Pontiac.

SOPFEU, Quebec’s forest fire protection agency, is anticipating another busy wildfire season in 2024 after dealing with 711 fires in the spring and summer of 2023.

How to get ready for wildfire season

In the meantime, you can prepare for the possibility of another smoky season by ensuring you have fresh HEPA filters for your home ventilation system, ensuring you have at least one working carbon monoxide alarm in your home, and making sure your doors and windows are properly sealed. You can also buy a portable air purifier for your home.

If you’re at greater risk of health complications from wildfire smoke, speak with your doctor or health care provider about developing a management plan for wildfire smoke events and maintain a supply of necessary medications at home ahead of wildfire season if you can.

If you live in a rural area that could be directly affected by fires caused by dry conditions, there are also ways to fireproof your property to reduce your risk, including keeping combustibles like firewood and construction materials farther away from your home and regularly clearing fallen branches and dry grass, leaves and needles from your property.

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