Canada’s year of fire – an unprecedented event

Friday 24 Nov 2023

Endless evacuations, unimaginable smoke and heat, 45 million acres burned — is this Canada’s new normal?

When the fires came to Yellowknife, the nearest safe-harbour city was more than 600 miles away, a full day’s drive through dense smoke and flammable, nearly uninhabited forest in the infernal midst of Canada’s worst wildfire season on record. And there was no plan for this. The region’s largest city by far, Yellowknife was typically the place where everyone elsewhere in the remote Northwest Territories fled to when rushing to escape fire and flood, as many now did several times a year.

When the unthinkable order to abandon the capital came on Aug. 18, there was nowhere else to go in the entire Northwest Territories, which is three times the size of California: Every other town and city but one was already under evacuation orders or alerts. Seventy percent of the population, across a half million square miles, had been ordered to leave their homes because of fire.

Just across Great Slave Lake, an entire hamlet was destroyed in hours, and a second fire spread over 30 miles in a single day. Just one road led out of Yellowknife, in fact one lane, and it was threatened by fire, too, with helicopters and water bombers sprinkling the highway ahead of the evacuation traffic so that tires wouldn’t melt on the road.

The evacuation route had no turns for 500 miles, the next gas station was three hours away and, when cell service vanished just outside town, all hope of communication and guidance disappeared, too. The smoke was dense for about an hour, one evacuee told me. “I had the N95 mask strapped close to my face, and I still could barely breathe,” he said. “You’ve got to drive through the fire to safety.”

In the end, Yellowknife was lucky, almost everyone I met there told me. People got out — a tribute to community resilience or local know-how or frantic leadership, depending on whom you asked. The territory’s only proper hospital was evacuated, with some patients in long-term care forced to leave three different sites in a single week. The city of 20,000 was spared, as were many across the country, where despite an incomprehensible volume of coast-to-coast fire, not a single civilian died in the flames.

Firefighting forces were stretched thin but fighting nevertheless — with direct attack, water bombers, fire trucks, helicopters, back burns, firebreaks, fire retardant, strategically schemed sprinkler systems for triage and old-fashioned bucket-brigade-style home-to-home structural defence. Outside Yellowknife, the fires had jumped first one impregnable firebreak, then another and then another. But then the conditions changed, a final break held and the flames stalled — lucky.

Luckier than Nova Scotia — where rarely more than a thousand hectares burn in a given year, but this year a single fire, the largest in recorded history, burned more than 20,000 and cast flames more than 300 feet into the sky, and another, outside the capital, Halifax, destroyed at least 150 homes.

Luckier than Kelowna, British Columbia, where stunned residents taking refuge on boats filmed whole neighbourhoods burning on both shores of Lake Okanagan and firefighters endured what one of them on the line said “was like fighting a hundred years of wildfire in one night.”

Luckier than nearby Hay River, which evacuated during devastating “worst-case” floods in the spring of 2022, and then again when fires came through from the east in May, destroying homes that were just being rebuilt. Fires came again in August, this time from the south, forcing those rushing out for the second time in three months to drive straight through wildfire flames and causing others, encountering fallen trees on the road, to jump into the river for safety, all cell service knocked out and the sound of fuel tanks exploding to punctuate the impenetrable smoke.

Luckier than Enterprise, southwest of Hay River, where at least 90 percent of the town’s structures were destroyed and just eight homes spared. At one point, the territory’s environmental minister told me, in a four-kilometre radius around town, there were 330 separate wildfire hot spots.

It was, all told, an ecologically unprecedented event. By the end of September, more than half of the world’s countries could fit inside the land burned this year in the Canadian wilderness. Since the 1970s, the average area burned in the country had already doubled; this year, wildfires consumed that average six times over. The modern single-year record had been set in 1989, when almost 19 million acres burned across the country. In 2023, the total has passed 45 million.

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Source: NYTimes

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