Satellite views of Canada’s largest 2023 fires

Over 18 million hectares (more than 44 million acres, roughly the size of North Dakota), were burned during Canada’s record-breaking wildfire season this year, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC). Canada usually sees only 2.5 million hectares burn annually. Although the number of fires that burned this year isn’t unusual — 6,595 as of October — many of the fires that did burn spread to “megafire” status.

Newly released NASA satellite imagery shows the day-by-day expansion of some of these megafires. The year’s second-largest fire burned 1,224,938 hectares (4,730 square miles) southeast of Sakami in Quebec; it was fully contained in late July.

NASA satellite imagery also shows the spread of four wildfires in and south of the Northwest Territories. The western-most fire, burning near Fort Nelson, stopped spreading in August after burning 802,575 hectares. It then was reignited by winds in late September and early October and spread to 1,294,096 hectares, becoming the state’s largest wildfire as of November 4. The animation details the fire’s first spread.

Scientists tracked the fires with the new “Fire Events Data Suite” (FEDS), which draws on data from a group of satellites called VIIRS. “The thing that really sets FEDS apart is that the system excels at tracking the daily, incremental spread of fires at 12-hour intervals,” said Yang Chen, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Irvine. “That makes near real-time monitoring possible and allows us to generate much more detailed views of fire progression than we have been able to do in the past.”

The new system will reportedly help fire crews pinpoint the parts of a fire perimeter that are actively burning and identify residual heat from the fire that may pose a hazard to wildland firefighters.

British Columbia’s fire crisis arrived decades earlier than forecast

British Columbia must adapt its forest management practices to prepare for future seasons, according to a report by Brenna Owen for The Canadian Press published by the CBC News.

The era of severe record-breaking wildfires has occurred earlier in British Columbia than previous research had projected, and experts say the disastrous 2023 season must serve as a springboard for action.

The surge stems from a combination of climate change and entrenched forest management practices, which have together created a landscape conducive to large, high-intensity blazes, says Lori Daniels, a professor in the department of forest and conservation sciences at the University of British Columbia.

“Society is already paying a huge cost for these climate change-fueled fires,” she says.

“The thing we can control in the short term is the vulnerability of the landscape,” adds Daniels.

Reducing that vulnerability means transforming how the landscape is managed. Shifting away from a timber-focused approach that prioritized conifer stocks over less-flammable broadleaf trees and ramping up prescribed burning are key to protecting communities and supporting healthy, resilient forests, says Daniels.

Canadian fires

“The sooner we do it, the better,” she adds.

Daniels is the co-author of a recent paper published by the peer-reviewed journal Nature that examined data from the last century and found an “abrupt” uptick in wildfire activity in B.C. corresponding with a warming and drying trend that began in the mid-2000s.

The province has experienced its four most severe wildfire seasons on record during the past seven years, in 2017, 2018, 2021 and 2023.

Canadian fires

“To have four of these seasons out of the last seven is shocking,” she says.

Pine beetle infestations and expanding interface also factors:  As development expands farther into the wildland/urban interface, summers in B.C. are increasingly characterized by hot, dry, and windy conditions primed for fires to burn with the speed and intensity that can overwhelm suppression efforts.

Marc-André Parisien, an Edmonton-based research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, led the study. He underscores the significance of increasing fire intensity.

“If a fire comes in rolling as a 30-metre wall of flames, there’s not a lot you can do,” he says. “You can dump a lot of water on it, but it amounts to spitting on a campfire.”