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.

Canadian smoke update

Residents of eastern Canada and the United States shared unhealthy air quality as hundreds of northern wildfires burn. On June 7, unhealthy to hazardous air advisories were issued for the capital cities of Ottawa, Ontario, and Washington, D.C., and for populations along the smoke paths.

The Fire and Smoke Map from AirNow offers an interactive map-based tool with local precautions. For Ottawa on June 7, AirNow sensors identified a hazardous air quality index (AQI) in the 400s for PM 2.5 (particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers or smaller; the average human hair is 30 times larger than the largest of PM 2.5 particulates). Due to the hazard of such a PM 2.5 loading, an advisory was issued to avoid all outdoor physical activity.

AirNow sensors with unhealthy air quality from Ottawa, Ontario to Washington, D.C.
AirNow sensors with unhealthy air quality from Ottawa, Ontario to Washington, D.C. Current map at fire.airnow.gov

In Washington, the AQI was unhealthy on June 7, with advisories to keep outdoor activities short and light, and to go indoors if you have symptoms. Sensitive groups should consider moving all activities indoors.

By the evening of June 8, the plume of unhealthiest air had shifted predominantly to the Northeast coast. In New York City, producers cited the effects of smoke when cancelling two Broadway shows and a Shakespeare in the Park performance. On June 6, New York City Mayor Eric Adams cancelled outdoor school activities. “We are taking precautions out of an abundance of caution to protect New Yorkers’ health until we are able to get a better sense of future air quality reports,” he said. “We recommend all New Yorkers limit outdoor activity to the greatest extent possible. Those with preexisting respiratory problems, like heart or breathing problems, as well as children and older adults may be especially sensitive and should stay indoors at this time.”

AirNow map for evening of June 8, 2023.
AirNow map for evening of June 8, 2023. Source: fire.airnow.gov

To track smoke risk, the IQAir Earth Map and the associated World AQI Ranking offer another set of monitoring tools, based on their IQAir network. As of June 7, their World AQI Ranking listed New York City as #2 and Detroit, Michigan as #5 as global cities with the worst air, with Toronto as #15. By the evening of June 8, New York City had dropped to #6, Toronto to #10, and Detroit to #24.

IQAir Earth map for June 7, 2023. Current map at www.iqair.com/us/earth.
IQAir Earth map for June 7, 2023. Current map at www.iqair.com/us/earth.

in an article for The Conversation, Christopher T. Migliaccio, a research associate professor in toxicology at the University of Montana, wrote on smoke toxicity and precautions to consider when exposed to smoke:

If there is smoke in the air, you want to decrease your exposure.

Can you completely avoid the smoke? Not unless you’re in a hermetically sealed home. The PM levels aren’t much different indoors and out unless you have a really good HVAC system, such as those with MERV 15 or better filters. But going inside decreases your activity, so your breathing rate is slower and the amount of smoke you’re inhaling is likely lower.

We also tend to advise people that if you’re in a susceptible group, such as those with asthma, create a safe space at home and in the office with a high-level stand-alone air filtration system to create a space with cleaner air.

Some masks can help. It doesn’t hurt to have a high-quality N95 mask. Just wearing a cloth mask won’t do much, though.

The BlueSky Canada smoke forecast for June 8 through June 10 offers a specific two-day outlook that doesn’t promise an end to smoke, but indicates that the thickest production may alternate with lighter periods of smoke. By June 10, something like clear skies may appear over Detroit, and the thickest fingers of smoke, from the Quebec fires through Ottawa to New York City, will become more intermittent. A look at the timing of the heaviest smoke may help to plan outside activities during the hours of clearer air.

The BlueSky Canada forecast also shows continued fire and smoke in western Canada and Alberta.

The BlueSky Canada smoke forecast from June 8-10, 2023.
The BlueSky Canada smoke forecast from June 8-10, 2023. For current forecast: firesmoke.ca/forecasts/current/

Alberta firefighters hoping for weather change

Several regions in the U.S. are suffering from poor air quality as smoke from wildfires in Canada drifts south. Much of the of the U.S. has experienced smoky skies for days, creating unhealthy conditions for residents with heart or lung conditions. ABC News reports that the National Weather Service issued an air quality alert for all of Montana, along with parts of Idaho, Colorado, and Arizona. In Utah, the Department of Environmental Quality urged residents on Friday to avoid outdoor activities in places with visible smoke and haze. Heavy smoke began to pour into northeastern Colorado on Friday.

Alberta Wildfire
Alberta Wildfire

Reuters reported that Alberta authorities hope cooler temperatures and showers forecast for the coming week will help firefighters in the oil-rich Canadian province, although storms could complicate efforts. Forecasters are tracking a front likely to move into Alberta on Sunday that could bring cooler weather. Christie Tucker, information unit manager at Alberta Wildfire, said Saturday the front could mean increased humidity or even rain.

“What we’d like to see is a long steady rain that will soak into the forest and into the ground,” Tucker said. “That will help us more than a short burst that would bring lightning and could spark a new wildfire.”

airnow.gov fire and smoke map
airnow.gov fire and smoke map

Alberta has endured energy production cuts, residential evacuations, and poor air quality after an intense start to the wildfire season. This year, Alberta Wildfire has responded to 496 wildfires burning more than 842,000 hectares, compared with just 459 hectares in 2022.

“This year’s total is nearly 2,000 times last year,” Tucker said. Over 2,800 firefighters from Canada and the United States were fighting 91 active fires on Saturday.

Canada’s wildfires have sent smoke to U.S. states including Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Utah, Washington, and Colorado, triggering air quality alerts in several places.

The air quality index on the Front Range in Colorado reached 168 on Friday, according to the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment. A reading between 151 and 200 indicates unhealthy conditions that affect sensitive groups as well as the general public, health officials say. Idaho also saw widespread haze earlier in the week, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

Rain forecast for western Canada

Western Canadian communities and firefighters may catch a welcome break next week with a forecast for precipitation — perhaps a good amount. Over the next week, areas along the Canadian Rockies may receive more than 100 mm (3.9 inches) while the Alberta-Saskatchewan border area may receive 20 mm (less than an inch), with soil moisture predicted to rise throughout the fire-impacted areas. This will likely slow fire spread and smoke volume, though fires at such scale will continue to produce smoke. An overall increase in humidity should lower fire danger.

The western provinces have experienced weeks of active fire behavior and growth, with an intensity comparable to that seen in the 2016 fires that burned Fort McMurray, Alberta and the heat domes and fires of 2021, when fires burned Lytton, British Columbia.

Precipitation forecasts from the National Center for Environmental Prediction

Phys.org reported that some 2,500 firefighters from across Canada backed by 400 military personnel have been deployed across Alberta and that more foreign help has been requested — with crews and incident management teams from the United States, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand.

At one point nearly 30,000 Alberta residents were evacuated from their homes. Hazardous air quality and low visibility due to smoke were reported from British Columbia to Saskatchewan and as far south as Colorado and northern Texas.

PM2.5 average05/21 map
PM2.5 average
05/21 map

Situation Reports – National

The home page of the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System features maps of weather, fire behavior, and hot spots.

The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center Situation Report for May 20 indicated area burned to-date of 2.1 million hectares (nearly 5.2 million acres), with 15 new fires for a total of 226 currently active fires. Of those fires, 90 are identified as out of control. Canada is in its tenth day at its highest preparedness level of 5.

Situation Reports – Provinces with highest fire activity

Climate Change and Fire

In the Climate Atlas of Canada, an article on “Forest Fires and Climate Change” examines the impacts of climate change on Canadian fires and summarizes studies by Mike Flannigan and other scientists who predict that by 2100, western Canada will see a 50 percent increase in the number of dry, windy days that let fires start and spread, whereas eastern Canada will see an even more dramatic 200 percent to 300 percent increase in this kind of fire weather.  And by 2040, fire management costs are expected to double.

Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, explores the impact in more detail on his website. “Fire is the major stand-renewing agent for much of the Canadian forest,” he says, “greatly influencing forest structure and function.”

The research he summarized indicates that the observed increases in area burned in Canada during the last four decades is the result of human-induced climate change. Additionally, he says it appears that temperature is the most important predictor of area burned in Canada with warmer temperatures associated with increased area burned.

Based on a 2005 analysis, Flannigan says current estimates are that an average of over 2 million hectares burn annually in Canada. Just shy of the third week of May, Canada has already recorded 2.1 million hectares burned.

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.

Alberta donates engines and ambulances to Mexico

Drove in a long convoy to Mazatlan

Canada gives engines ambulances to Mexico
Canadian engines and ambulances on their way from Alberta to be given to Mexico. Photo by Steve Holder, November 4, 2022.

During his annual southward migration, Steve Holder encountered a line of engines and ambulances at the US/Mexico border:

On the drive into Mexico today we stopped for our visitor visa and saw this long line of engines and ambulances. The Rotary Club from Grand Prairie, Alberta is taking them to Mazatlan where they will be distributed to areas of greatest need. These rigs are packed with lots of fire gear. Bunch of great Canadians doing good things- they seemed to be having fun!

Canada gives engines ambulances to Mexico
Canadian engines and ambulances on their way from Alberta to be given to Mexico. Photo by Steve Holder, November 4, 2022.
Canada gives engines ambulances to Mexico
Canadian engines and ambulances on their way from Alberta to be given to Mexico. Photo by Steve Holder, November 4, 2022.

Thank you Steve!