Canada fire smoke evacuates thousands

Smoke from a wildfire that’s burned more than 4,000 acres and forced thousands to evacuate is causing 2024’s first widespread drop in air quality, according to the British Columbia Wildfire Service.

The Parker Lake Fire, burning in the northeast section of the province, forced more than 3,000 residents from the nearby Northern Rockies Regional Municipality and Fort Nelson First Nation to evacuate.

BC smoke drift
BC smoke drift from Parker Lake Fire

“All remaining residents are urged to evacuate the community immediately,” a press release from the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality said. “As the safety of emergency personnel remaining in the community becomes the priority, residents remaining in place need to be aware that emergency medical services are not available, nor are groceries or other amenities. Utilities may be affected to support fire response efforts.”

BC Wildfire Service

While the evacuations are limited to the immediate areas near the wildfire,  the smoke is triggering air quality alerts throughout Canada and the northern U.S., according to Canada’s Weather Information Service and the AirNow Fire & Smoke Map.

Air quality is at the most dangerous reading of “hazardous” in areas directly southeast of the fire near the community of Grande Prairie. People  should avoid outdoor activities during hazardous air quality, especially people with pre-existing heart or lung conditions, or older adults, children, and pregnant women.

The smoke has caused “very unhealthy” air quality alerts in numerous communities in central and southern Alberta. Communities in southern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario, as well as areas in Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota have “unhealthy” air quality.

The Parker Lake Fire is the first wildfire of 2024 to cause widespread air quality impacts, the beginning of what fire experts expect to be a growing trend throughout the year. Fire crews throughout British Columbia are actively fighting 134 wildfires, primarily in the Prince George region of the province, according to the province’s wildfire service.

Most of the fires are considered “under control,” with only four wildfires designated as “being held” and 13 others “out of control.” Another 102 BC fires have started since the beginning of the year, but are considered “out.”

BC map

wildfiresituation.nrs.gov.bc.ca/map

BC evacuations
BC evacuations

Canada’s early and busy start is on par with the fire service’s outlook for the spring 2024 season that was released in March. “The current long-range forecasts suggest a high potential for an active spring wildfire season in British Columbia,” the report says. “While recent snowfall may seem beneficial, its impact on the upcoming wildfire season is expected to be minimal due to sublimation (solid to vapor) and the dry nature of snow in Interior regions. The low snowpack will limit surface runoff, stream flows, and fuel moisture recharge, which could limit drought recovery into summer 2024.”

The intensity of the summer wildfire season is in British Columbia largely depends on the amount and duration of rainfall during May and June, the rainiest months in the BC Interior. Continuous rain could reduce the likelihood of wildfires, but meteorologists are currently skeptical that sufficient rainfall will occur.

The 2023 wildfire season in British Columbia ended with 2,293 wildfires and burned more than 7 million acres, costing the province $1.1 billion. Just over 70 percent of the wildfires were lightning-caused.

 

which is just one of over 100 active fires in Canada,

In some parts of Canada, the 2023 fires never ended

Wildfire seasons have been getting longer since the 1970s, according to (among others) the USDA Climate Hubs.

“The wildfire season in Western states has extended from 5 months to over 7 months in length,” the department said. Since the 1980s, the annual number of large fires and area burned has significantly increased  (according to a report by Anthony Westerling, Hugo Hidalgo, Daniel Cayan, and Thomas Swetnam in the journal Science). The average burn time of individual fires has grown from 6 days (between 1973 and 1982) to 52 days (between 2003 and 2012).

The increase in another wildfire phenomenon may spell the end of wildfire seasons altogether and turn wildland firefighting into a year-round effort, more than it already is.

“Zombie fires,” or wildfires that smolder underground during the winter before reemerging in the spring, are becoming more common in Arctic forests, according to a 2021 study published in Scientific American. The most likely cause was attributed to climate change.

“Contrary to the hypothesis that overwinter fires sustain themselves in carbon-rich, organic soil layers known as peat, the researchers learned that most of them had burned in drier, upland sites with dense tree populations; the find suggested fires had instead smoldered underground in woody tree roots,” another Scientific American article on the subject said.

The woody tree roots in British Columbia’s boreal forests are feared to be the next place where a zombie fire could emerge, continuing Canada’s record-breaking wildfire season of last year. As of January 18, the BC Wildfire Service map shows that around 100 active wildfires are still burning in the province, some of which are still smoldering underground and threaten to kick off yet another disastrous wildfire season this year.

BC Wildfire Service map
BC Wildfire Service map — current fires — 01/26/2024

It wouldn’t be the first time zombie fires foretold a bad fire season. At the beginning of 2023, British Columbia recorded 16 “carryover” fires, according to the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, and BC Wildfire Service data shows that in most years since 2014, only five or fewer  carryover fires were reported.

“A lot of people have talked about the 2023 fire season being over, but it’s not over,” said Sonja Leverkus, a BC wildland fire crew leader. “It is not over in northeast British Columbia. Our fires did not stop burning.”

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.”

Yet another Canadian firefighter dies … on the largest fire in British Columbia’s history

Second firefighter to die in B.C. in 2023  responding to wildfires

A Canadian wildland firefighter in British Columbia died while responding to the Donnie Creek Fire in northeast B.C., according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. This is the second firefighter death on the front lines during the 2023 wildfire season in the province, along with other fatalities in Canada this season. RCMP said in a statement that the firefighter was a 25-year-old man from Ontario who died on Friday.

According to police, the firefighter, who was contracted to the B.C. Wildfire Service, was working in a remote area about 150 km (a little over 90 miles) north of Fort St. John when his utility terrain vehicle rolled over a sharp drop in a gravel road. “He was transported by helicopter to the Fort St. John Airport, but sadly succumbed to his injuries while en route,” reads the statement.

B.C. Premier David Eby said Saturday that the Donnie Creek Fire is the largest ever recorded in B.C. history. “I am heartbroken that another firefighter was lost protecting our communities and our province during this devastating wildfire season,” Eby said.

The incident’s still under investigation.

Alberta fires evacuate thousands

UPDATE 05/06/2023:   Three wildfires burning near the boundary between British Columbia and Alberta have forced evacuation orders and an alert. Two of the fires are in the Peace River region, including the Red Creek Fire, covering 1,550 hectares (3,830 acres) northwest of Fort St. John, B.C., about 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) northeast of Vancouver.

CBC Canada reported that the evacuation order covers 61 homes in the area; Goodlow, B.C., and the surrounding region are also under evacuation orders ahead of the Boundary Lake Fire, which covers an area of 19 square kilometres (~4700 acres).

 Boundary Lake Fire in the Prince George Fire Centre. (B.C. Wildfire Service)
 Boundary Lake Fire in the Prince George Fire Centre. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

Dozens of new wildfires were discovered across Alberta on Thursday amid high temperatures, dangerously dry conditions, and high winds. More than 10,000 people across Alberta are now affected by mandatory evacuation orders, according to a Global News Canada report.

Fire officials updated many Alberta Emergency Alerts throughout the day as the fires grew and threatened more properties.

An evening update from Alberta Wildfire said there were 72 active wildfires across the province — but in the hours after that bulletin, even more fires showed up on the government agency’s live dashboard. As of 11 p.m, it showed 79 fires, with 19 out of control; 25 were caused by humans, five by lightning — and the rest were still under investigation.

CBC Canada reported that one out-of-control fire has forced the evacuation of thousands of people from Drayton Valley and Brazeau County in west-central Alberta.

“Bring important documents, medication, food, water and supplies for at least three days,” town officials told 7,200 residents on its Facebook page late Thursday. “Take pets with you.”

The City of Edmonton has set up a reception centre for evacuees at the Expo

B.C. Wildfire Service mobile app
B.C. Wildfire Service mobile app — find it on the App Store or Google Play.

Centre in Edmonton. Bart Guyon of Brazeau County has been coordinating with the area’s fire chief to ensure county residents have the latest information and are able to evacuate swiftly. “It’s kind of like waking up in the middle of a nightmare,” Guyon said.

“Tactical evacuations are being done. This wildfire primarily affects oil and gas industry, but anyone within the area must evacuate,” the emergency alert said.

The evacuations in Brazeau County and Drayton Valley are the latest developments in a week that has seen a series of wildfires across central and northern Alberta. Many are burning out of control in hot, dry and windy conditions.

On Thursday, the fire in the Fox Lake area forced thousands of people from their homes. According to an update from Alberta Wildfire on Thursday afternoon, the wildfire covers about 4,400 hectares (~11,000 acres). Alberta Wildfire has forest area updates and fire data online, with maps and annual statistics on its Wildfire Status Dashboard website.

Making a decision about a proposed planned ignition on a wildfire

How it was done on the Connell Ridge Fire in British Columbia

Evaluating a possible planned ignition on the Connell Ridge Fire in British Columbia
Evaluating a possible planned ignition on the Connell Ridge Fire in British Columbia. Photo: BC Wildfire Service.

The British Columbia Wildfire Service (BCWS) has been working to contain the 4,230-acre Connell Ridge Fire 14 miles south of Cranbrook since it was reported August 1. It was likely started by lightning.

Crews had already completed burnouts (or planned ignitions) on the south flank and southeast corner but on August 19 a decision had to be made about whether to conduct an additional burnout on the southwest side. After a test burn, the Incident Management Team decided not to conduct the burnout.

Map of the Connell Ridge Fire, Aug. 21,1 2022
Map of the Connell Ridge Fire, Aug. 21,1 2022. BCWS.

The BCWS created the explanatory article and illustrations, below, about some of the considerations and steps taken as the decision was being made. It is rather extraordinary for a land management agency, at least in the United States, to provide this degree of transparency and detail about how a suppression decision was made. This could serve as an example for others to follow, especially when “big box” strategies are used that result in burning thousands of acres of green vegetation, too often with insufficient thought about ignition tactics, second order results, air quality, and long term fire effects.

The article below uses the term “guard” in the first paragraph which I believe in this context refers to a completed control line intended to stop the spread of the fire.

Information Officers on Type 1 Incident Management Teams should be capable of creating valuable content like this:


August 21, 2022

Test ignitions were conducted on the morning of August 19, 2022 on the Connell Ridge (N10989) wildfire, in anticipation of implementing planned ignition operations on the southwest corner. These test ignitions allow our crews and operational staff to determine if the unburnt fuels between the fire perimeter and the guard will be receptive to burning.

The area that the small-scale ignition was planned for is in steep terrain where the fire has been naturally burning in a patchy manner as the fire finds drier fuels that are able to ignite. This means there is a lot of unburnt, greener fuel within this area, between the free burning fires edge and the established control lines.

Evaluating a possible planned ignition on the Connell Ridge Fire in British Columbia.
Evaluating a possible planned ignition on the Connell Ridge Fire in British Columbia. Photos: BC Wildfire Service.

The purpose of the planned ignition for this area was to remove that unburnt fuel in an intentional way to secure the control line and achieve containment on the southwest ridge of the fire. This unburnt fuel has the potential to burn on it’s own as these greener fuels continue to dry under the hot and dry weather conditions. While the shorter term forecast for the complex shows patches of precipitation, the precipitation will be minimal and is not guaranteed to fall on the fires. With the longer-term forecast returning to a warming and drying trend early next week, these drying green fuels that may not have seen any additional moisture will continue to dry.

Planned ignitions are a very useful tactic in fire suppression and fire management and are often the safer and more efficient operational tactic. It allows us to bring the fire perimeter down to control lines and creates a more uniform and continuous fire edge which is easier for crews to use direct attack methods on and extinguish hot spots to strengthen control lines and achieve containment. This is also more time-efficient and safer for the crews as they have to spend less time chasing hot spots and patches of free burning fire in rough terrain.

Based on test ignitions on August 19 it was determined that the unburnt fuels would not burn in a way that contributes to the strengthening of the existing control line. This means it will take longer to secure this portion of the fire as crews will now need to focus on targeting the patches and hotspots for extinguishment in order to secure this area of the fire.


The Incident Management Team on the Connell Ridge Fire is also working on the Weasel Creek Fire (N11062) and the Cummings Creek Fire (N11051).