How weather, COVID-19 spared Canada from wildfires like those in the U.S.
TORONTO -- Canada has experienced a lower than average number of wildfires this year thanks in part to COVID-19 restrictions, as well as cooler temperatures and wetter conditions compared to the United States, where devastating and record-setting wildfires have been raging across large swaths of the west coast this year.
According to federal government data, Canada has had 3,621 wildfires that burned 235,124 hectares so far this year. This compares to the 10-year average (to date) of 5,639 wildfires burning nearly 2.9 million hectares.
The government said 2020 has been one of Canada's quietest wildfire seasons since the 1990s, with national wildfire preparedness level remaining at level 1 for much of the summer. This compares to the level 5 preparedness in the United States, where there are currently 87 massive fires burning more than 1.8 million hectares in 10 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, including several that are among the largest fires ever recorded in those states.
Abnormally low rainfall in the U.S. over the last several years combined with record high temperatures in parts of the west coast have been a driving factor in making the region especially vulnerable to wildfires caused by lightning and humans.
“The west coast was experiencing that … just huge frequency of lightning strikes that landed in a forest that was really tinder-dry and high temperatures, just like kindling. So it’s really not surprising. It’s just shocking -- the expanse and the intensity,” Alison Munson, a professor of forest ecology at the Université Laval, told CTVNews.ca.
“That’s the big difference between what we’re seeing in the States and what we’re seeing in Canada - is that drought conditions are really, really severe. Canada hasn’t experienced the same severity of drought as the western States in the last several years … we’re not breaking (temperature) records this summer either.”
Parts of Canada, such as interior British Columbia, can get fairly dry and become susceptible to the dangers of really dry conditions, but overall, Munson said the local U.S. climate has become more intense in the last five to 10 years.
“The local weather patterns are just wreaking havoc on the western States, and we’re not experiencing the same weather system,” she added.
With the quieter than normal fire season in many parts of Canada, some Canadian firefighters have gone south to help battle the inferno. Canada sent 60 people from Quebec last week to California, where wildfires are burning across more than a million hectares of the state, amid warnings of unseasonably hot weather.
HEAVY RAINFALL AND COVID MEASURES
The difference has been particularly dramatic in Alberta, where there have been 634 wildfires so far this year burning some 1,450 hectares. A year ago, there were 962 wildfires that burned across 857,000 hectares, while the five-year average for mid-September is 1,288 wildfires burning roughly 408,000 hectares.
The biggest and most impactful wildfire activity in Alberta occurs in the spring after the snow has melted, exposing dead and dry grass, according to Melissa Story, the provincial information officer with Alberta Wildfire.
“Until those things turn green, it’s a big tinderbox for wildfires -- they can start easily and spread very quickly,” Story told CTVNews.ca.
A ban on fires and off-highway vehicle (OHV) restrictions through April and May, as part the province’s COVID-19 response, also helped lower the number of wildfires, she said.
Campfires that are not fully extinguished can often result in a wildfire, while a buildup of debris such as grass and moss can ignite in the exhaust of an OHV where temperatures can heat up to more than 200C degrees. These are preventable fires and the public is encouraged to be more cautious when they are out in forested areas, Story added.
“We can’t quite measure exactly how many fires we’ve prevented, but it would probably be safe to say that we avoided a lot with having less people out in the forested areas,” she said, noting that between 65 and 70 per cent of Alberta wildfires are caused by humans in any given year. This year, that figure was 79 per cent. The rest are caused by lightning.
An unusually rainy start to the summer when COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and the dry vegetation from the winter had turned green also helped minimize some of the wildfires.
“June in particular was one of our historical highs for accumulated precipitation,” Story said.
In B.C., about 42 per cent of wildfires are caused by humans on average, while 57 per cent are caused by lightning, according to the province’s wildfire data.
Munson said travel restrictions meant many Canadians across the country opted for camping instead, but because of more favourable weather, the risks for wildfires caused by humans was lower.
As the weather begins to cool, it is unlikely -- though not impossible -- that Canada will see any new, major wildfires this year, experts said.
Still, Canadians are being impacted in other ways, as smoke from the U.S. fires reached six Canadian provinces. The pollution was so severe in B.C. and Alberta at one point that the two provinces issued air quality warnings.
Overall, scientists have been pointing to climate change as a major factor in the U.S. wildfires.
“It’s clear that climate change is a big part of what’s happening on the west coast right now,” said Munson.
“Climate scientists have made the relation directly to what’s happening now. Fires and temperatures will continue to climb. This has been a record breaking year for temperatures in California, for example, and temperatures will not necessarily stabilize -- they’ll keep going up … what’s predicted in the next few years would intensify what’s going on in the West and probably elsewhere in North America.”