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Unprecedented wildfires in Canada have already torched more than nine million hectares of land this year, but officials are worried that the scorching summer to come will only worsen conditions, and warn of dire health hazards from the smoke for front-line workers and the general public.
Officials cautioned last week that Canadians can expect a “long, tough summer” of wildfires as the current season shatters previous records and forecasts predict even hotter temperatures ahead, reports the Guardian, citing Michael Norton, director general of the Canadian Forest Service’s Northern Forestry Centre.
The more than nine million hectares (90,000 square kilometres) that have burned to date have shattered the 1989 full-season record of 7.8 million hectares.
“This number is literally off the charts, with at least three more months left in the active wildfire season,” Norton told reporters at a briefing last week.
Put together, the burned land is more vast than Lake Superior, and nearly 11 times the average amount burned by this date in the past 10 years, reports the Canadian Press.
As of July 9, there were 866 active wildfires burning across Canada: 201 under control, 134 “being held,” and 531 out of control.
A Blow to Blueberry River First Nations
Included in the “out of control” category is the 5,700-square-kilometre Donnie Creek fire, burning 150 kilometres north of Fort St. John in British Columbia. The fire is chewing through vast swathes of timber, as well as precious cultural heritage and resources of the Blueberry River First Nations, which just this January struck a historic management deal with the province to protect 6,500 square kilometres of their territory from further infringement of their treaty rights by forestry and oil and gas development.
Blueberry River Chief Judy Desjarlais described the fire as a yet another “major, major blow to the territory.”
“It felt like this was just kicking us while we were down,” Desjarlais told the Vancouver Sun. “We were just going to get up, and then we were hit again.”
More than 155,000 Canadians have been evacuated from their homes ahead of dangerous wildfires since May. Norton said some 4,550 remain under evacuation orders, 75% of them displaced from Indigenous communities.
That number may be increasing, with CBC listing Burns Lake, Quesnel, and Fort St. James among several northern B.C. communities issued with evacuation orders over the weekend.
The number and ferocity of the fires has required “an unprecedented level of international support,” with 3,258 firefighters from around the world arriving to help since the season began, providing assistance to the nearly 38,000 provincial firefighters already working to combat the blazes. The Canadian Armed Forces are also involved.
Unprecedented Summer Heat
Extreme, unseasonable heat in many regions coast to coast is not helping matters. Early July saw temperatures in parts of northern Quebec soar to nearly 34°C, “hotter than Miami,” reported the Guardian.
Searing global temperatures are also in the headlines, as July’s first week may have been Earth’s hottest on record, “the latest grim milestone in a series of climate change-driven extremes,” reports the Associated Press.
The daily average temperature through the first week of July was 0.04°C higher than any other since record-keeping began 44 years ago, found the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer, a website that models satellite data to illustrate the state of the climate.
The Reanalyzer’s numbers are unofficial—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has distanced itself from the modelling over methodology concerns—but policy-makers seized on them as proof of the need for urgent climate action.
“The alarming extreme weather events impacting millions of Americans underscore the urgency of President Biden’s climate agenda and the absurdity of continued efforts by Republican lawmakers to block and repeal it,” said White House spokesperson Abdullah Hasan.
An “exceptionally mild winter” in Antarctica is a major proximate driver behind the early July heat, AP explains. “Parts of the continent and nearby ocean were 10 to 20°C higher than averages from 1979 to 2000.”
As anticipated by experts, the return of El Niño is also playing a significant role in an “astonishing surge of heat across the globe” that “shattered temperature records from North America to Antarctica” last week, writes the New York Times.
Included in this shattering were “off-the-charts” temperatures in the North Atlantic, with surface temperatures 1.6°C warmer than typical for May.
These sharp temperature leaps—and the overall warming of the planet—are “well within the realm of what scientists had projected would happen” should humans continue to use the Earth’s atmosphere as a dumpster for greenhouse gases, said Berkeley Earth climate scientist Zeke Hausfather, adding that the predicted shift in the El Niño-Southern Oscillation is also a factor.
“A big reason we’re seeing so many records shattered is that we’re transitioning out of an unusually long, three-year La Niña, which suppressed temperatures, and into a strong El Niño,” Hausfather said.
“That likely portends even more heat is coming,” notes the Times. With El Niño just getting started, its peak is projected for late 2023 or early 2024, and expectations are that global temperatures will surge again next year, possibly to greater heights.
Norton of the Canadian Forestry Service confirmed that ongoing drought is a “major contributing factor” in the wildfire activity across Canada.
“When coupled with forecasts for ongoing above-normal temperatures across most of the country, it is anticipated that many parts of Canada will continue to see above-normal fire activity,” he said.
‘Unique Threats’ to Public Health
“It’s really the fine particles, the ones that are very small and not visible to the human eye that get deep into our lungs and bloodstream, that we are most concerned with in terms of health risk,” Marie-Eve Héroux, manager of air quality assessment for Health Canada, told reporters at the Canadian Forest Service briefing last week.
The risks are especially high for wildfire fighters. “In Canada, more than 85% of firefighter fatality claims are attributed to cancer, and research from numerous studies has shown firefighters are at high risk of a number of illnesses, including lung and breast cancer,” reports CBC.
Wildfire fighters in Canada are at particular risk because, while protections against heat and falling debris are mandated, respiratory protection is not, partly because wearing a mask in the extreme conditions of a firefight can make an already uncomfortable situation nearly unbearable.
“You’re in the forest. You’re taking branches to the face. You’re wet. You’re sweaty. You’re hot. And you’re out there doing 16-hour days and then you wear something when you’re sleeping in your tent at night? Probably not,” said wildfire veteran Ian Sachs. “It’s just I don’t know if they can really design something for wildland fire.”
Neil McMillan, director of science and research for the Occupational Health, Safety and Medicine Division of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), is committed to changing a dangerous status quo which finds most wildfire fighters in Canada heading into thick smoke with little more than bandanas or N95 masks for protection.
The IAFF is pushing all levels of government to invest in protective masks for all wildfire fighters,” McMillan said. “There’s a lot of ground to cover [but] hopefully we’ll see some products on the market shortly.”
Such products do exist, CBC writes, citing the United States Department of Homeland Security, which has identified 26 air-purifying respirators (APR) and powered air-purifying respirators as a good fit for the frontline fire fight.
As wildfires approach populated areas, respiratory protection for the general public may also become crucial.
A new literature review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that interface wildfires—those that burn the human-built environment (homes and vehicles) as well as wilderness—increasingly present a “‘unique threat to public health’” reports Smart Cities Dive.
Smoke from such fires may contain significantly higher levels of “acutely toxic and carcinogenic” chemicals, such as volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, and hydrogen chloride, the review found.
Hydrogen chloride is a particular threat, said study lead and EPA research mechanical engineer Amara Holder. “There’s a lot more chlorine in the built environment than there is in the natural environment.”
Holder said that one critical question for further study would be whether the toxins generated by interface fires will eventually force people to evacuate ahead of the smoke, whereas now they only need to run ahead of the flames.