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With snow starting to fly across Western Canada, marking the end to this year’s wildfire season, we wanted to see how the past year’s fires compared to previous years.
On average, about 6,000 fires burn around 2.5 million hectares each year in Canada, and our warming climate means we can expect longer and more intense fire seasons.
So let’s dive in and take a look.
More normal season for Western provinces
This season started on a wet note for much of Western Canada.
British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan saw steady rain right into June.
In Edmonton, we saw twice the normal rainfall for June, with 140 millimetres in the month. In western Saskatchewan, areas like Kindersley saw nearly 96 mm in the month, when they typically would see 67 mm.
The damp start to the summer made a big dent in the wildfire season.
“We had a very wet spring, which was great for wildfire mitigation as spring typically tends to be the time that we see catastrophic wildfires,” said Melissa Story, a provincial information officer with Alberta Wildfire.
“It was followed up with a few months of hot, dry conditions which definitely elevated the fire danger … We saw a number of wildfires, but we were able to keep them contained.”
Overall, Alberta saw more than 1,200 wildfires this year that burned about 153,000 hectares.
For comparison, close to 800,000 hectares burned in Alberta in 2019 during a particularly volatile wildfire season that included blazes such as the Chuckegg Creek fire near High Level, which burned well over 300,000 hectares and forced thousands of people in northwestern Alberta from their homes.
This year’s wildfire number is slightly higher than the five-year average of 1,035, but less than the five-year average for hectares burned – around 208,000.
“We’ve had a relatively average year this year to date in the province,” says Story.
That being said, fire did make its mark.
Notable fires this year included large expanses of the Fort McMurray forest, a wildfire in the Rocky Mountain House area, and the Chetamon Mountain fire near Jasper that knocked out power to the town.
Saskatchewan saw a slightly busier season, surpassing its five-year average for both number of fires and hectares burned.
There were 443 wildfires this year compared to the five-year average of 379.
Kara Slobodzian, media relations manager with the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, said fires in that province this year included a blaze that burned over 12,000 hectares and forced evacuations in Stanley Mission, about 80 kilometres northwest of La Ronge.
Late and quieter season for B.C.
Last year was horrendous for wildfires in British Columbia. Lytton burned to the ground killing two people, and the White Rock Lake fire north of Kelowna burned over 80,000 hectares and destroyed 78 properties in the central Okanagan.
This year, B.C. also saw a slow start to the season, with cool and wet weather this spring.
“The energy buildup just wasn’t there given that [fires] were starting later in July or August,” says Forrest Tower, a fire information officer for British Columbia.
“The burning window, so the time and the day that a fire can burn, was just shorter and shorter as we moved into fall.”
However, this year there were over 1700 fires, a few more fires than the province’s 10-year average. Around 133,000 hectares burned, close to 300,000 hectares fewer than the 10-year average.
“We were quite busy throughout July, August and all of September almost and even now into the end of October,” says Tower.
Despite the busy end to the season, Tower says it was a different story than past severe seasons as seen in 2017, 2018 and 2021.
“We had periods, very short periods, where hundreds of fires were starting in large geographic areas [in those years],” he says.
“We didn’t have the ability to quickly get to every single one of those fires within the time that you can keep it under initial attack size.”
This year, Tower says, the fires were much more spaced out, allowing responders to keep them under that initial attack size — under one hectare within 24 hours.
“Our initial attack success was really good. So we were able to kind of get to fires quickly.”
Larger fires in the territories
This longer warm fall has really bumped numbers in the Northwest Territories and Yukon.
At 257 fires this year, the numbers seem lower. But the area burned was significant.
In the N.W.T., the season was busy from the start, and remained highly active until mid-October, which is highly unusual for the region.
This year the territory saw wildfires burn over 680,000 hectares, surpassing the five- and 10- year averages.
Moderate drought conditions and warm fall temperatures helped feed the flames.
Though busy, fire officials say this season still pales in comparison to the outlier season of 2014, when 3.5 million hectares burned in the territory.
Climate change and fire seasons
As our climate continues to change, fire seasons are expected to get longer and more severe.
Hot temperatures in the summer and not enough rain to compensate for the moisture lost will be factors going forward.
“We’re seeing an increase in how long fire seasons go on on both ends. So we’re seeing sometimes fires start quite a bit earlier and then also still are able to start quite a bit later,” says Tower, the fire information officer in B.C.
“It’s usually pushed one way or the other and it really just depends on precipitation received in our snowpack levels, and the previous year’s drought code.”
Tower says with the dry weather this fall, next fire season will be one to watch.
“Unless we get significant precipitation and a high snowpack, we’re most likely starting spring in a very dry condition.”
He says that if we see warming trends in the early part of next year, it could be an early start to the fire season. Extreme weather plays a role, too.
“The heat dome had a huge impact in 2021 on our fire season. So any sort of event like that can really drastically change how the rest of the summer progresses for sure.”
Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled “Our Changing Planet” to show and explain the effects of climate change. Keep up with the latest news on our Climate and Environment page.
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