Canada's unprecedented wildfires could soon get worse, experts say

How conditions led to the devastating wildfires burning all over the country.

August 22, 2023, 3:12 PM

The historic wildfire season currently plaguing Canada is expected to persist, perhaps becoming even worse in the coming weeks – a potentially devastating forecast made more likely due to human-caused climate change, according to new research.

Drought and hot conditions contributed to an unprecedented start to the fire season in Canada and has kept the fires burning all over the country since late April says Kristina Dahl, senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. By June, the smoke emitted from the wildfires reached the highest amount ever recorded in the country.

A person travels in a boat past people walking on the boardwalk as smoke from the McDougall Creek wildfire blankets the area on Okanagan Lake in Kelowna, British Columbia, Aug. 18, 2023.
Darryl Dyck/AP

The hot and dry conditions are expected to persist in the coming weeks, with forecasts in many regions calling for an above-average fire risk for the rest of August and through September, presenting the opportunity for the wildfires to continue at the current pace or even worsen, Dahl told ABC News.

As of Tuesday, more than 37.8 million total acres have been burned, an area nearly as large as the state of Georgia, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC). There are more than 1,000 active wildfires burning in Canada, with more than 650 of them deemed "out of control," according to the agency.

"We're not anticipating this to ease up any time soon," Dahl said, describing the amount of inland area burned by wildfires this year as "off the charts."

The total acres burned so far this year in Canada is more than the total amount of land burned by wildfires in the U.S. since 2019, according to ABC News calculations, based on data from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. The acreage burned in Canada this year so far doubles the previous record there for an entire season

The fire season would not have gotten this bad were it not for anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change, according to a new study released Tuesday by World Weather Attribution, an international group of academics and officials that evaluate the influence of climate change on extreme weather events.

Canadian Wildfires
ABC News, Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center, Inc.

For example, the weather conditions that led to the wildfires in Quebec earlier this summer were twice as likely to occur because of human-induced warming than without it, the researchers found. Additionally, those conditions were about 20% to 50% more intense due to climate change, according to the study, which analyzed data from Canada's Fire Weather Index. High-temperature records broken in Canada in May and June, combined with low humidity and rapid snow melt, further contributed to the risky conditions.

Although the conditions that led to the extreme wildfire season were unprecedented, they are no longer "extremely unusual," World Weather Attribution said in a statement.

In today's climate, similar weather conditions can be expected to occur once every 25 years, meaning that they have about a 4% chance of occurring each year, the analysis found.

Thick smoke from the Lower East Adams Lake wildfire fills the air around a Canadian flag fluttering in the wind as Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers on a boat patrol Shuswap Lake, in Scotch Creek, British Columbia, Aug. 20, 2023.
Darryl Dyck/AP

Also contributing to the current wildfires is that Canada did not experience a typical spring season this year, David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment and Climate Change Canada, told ABC News last week. Instead, many regions went straight from winter to summer, with overall temperatures warmer than average. Also, 50% to 60% of the country was abnormally dry during the spring months, including many agricultural regions in addition to forests. The dry spring conditions followed what was an abnormally dry winter for much of Canada as well.

It has been "too hot and too dry for too long," in the country, Phillips said.

"It's almost impossible for nature alone to do these things," Phillips declared. "This wildfire season has been ramped up. These fires are bigger and badder."

Should the planet continue to warm, the risk of even greater wildfires will further increase, the World Weather Attribution study found.

The unique characteristics of fire weather in different regions of the world makes wildfires more complicated to study, Clair Barnes, a research associate at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, said in a statement. But it is becoming more evident that dry and warm conditions are conducive to wildfires becoming more common, and more intense, around the world due to climate change, Barnes said.

This image provided by Maxar Technologies, shows wildfires in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada on Aug. 15, 2023.

The CIFFC National Preparedness Level in Canada has been at its highest level – 5 out of 5, for "extreme" – since May 11. What is making this season so devastating and difficult to manage is that the fires are erupting across the country all at once, Phillips said.

There may be some relief in sight, however, fire risks should decrease in October when temperatures are cooler, preventing additional fires from sparking and the further spread of existing ones, Dahl said.

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