It’s been a ridiculously hot Winter and Spring for most of Western and Northern Canada. And in many locations, odd, Summer-like conditions are already starting to dominate. For these regions — areas sitting on piles of dry vegetation or thawing permafrost — a single hot day, thunderstorm, or even just the melting away of the Winter snow is now enough to spur the eruption of wildfires.
In Fort St. John, along the shores of Charlie Lake in Northeastern British Columbia and at about the same Latitude line as Ft. McMurray in Alberta, temperatures on Monday rocketed to 28 degrees Celsius (about 82 degrees Fahrenheit). These scorching readings were about 20 degrees C (36 degrees F) above average for the day. The excessive early-season heat sweltered an area that had seen extensive drying throughout a long, warm winter. And nearby grasses and crops became a ready fuel as Monday’s heat and winds sparked four sudden and severe blazes that swiftly leapt toward town.
(Taylor fire looms over fuel tanks on Monday evening. In total, excessive heat and dry conditions sparked 48 wildfires across Northern British Columbia on Monday — a number that had swelled to 53 by Wednesday morning. Image source: Destiny Ashdown/Facebook.)
By Monday evening, more than 48 fires had raged into existence throughout northeastern British Columbia — forcing the province to declare a state of emergency. By Wednesday morning, excess heat, thunderstorms and strong southerly winds had fanned a total of 96 wildfires across Canada.
In Fort St. John, two fires (The Taylor Fire and the Charlie Lake Fire) forced residents in the Baldonnel and Prince George communities to flee. The blazes cut power lines, generating outages for 2,700 customers, closed highway 29, consumed two homes, and threatened fuel storage tanks near Taylor. By early Wednesday (as of about two hours ago), these two fires had finally been contained and evacuation orders for Baldonnel and South Taylor were rescinded.
But as some fires came under control, other blazes swelled suddenly to more dangerous size. By Wednesday, the Beatton Airport Road Fire had grown to 4,500 hectares and a new evacuation alert had just been issued for that area. Meanwhile, the East Pine Fire, southwest of Fort St. John, had hit 500 acres even as it jumped the Pine River and continued to rage out of control.
Meanwhile, places along the thaw line in Northern Alberta began to erupt in plumes of smoke and flame.
(Satellite shot of fire burning along the freeze-thaw line in Northern Alberta on April 19th of 2016. During recent, and far warmer than normal, Northern Hemisphere Springs, Arctic wildfires have sprung up along thawing permafrost zones almost immediately after the snow line peels back. It appears that permafrost thaw provides a peat-like fuel that, in some places, continues to smolder throughout Winter, ready to erupt again during the increasingly early Spring thaw. A new Arctic fire hazard in a record hot world. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)
So as of April 18th, fire season had already begun in Canada. With record global heat stooping over the region, it’s a fire season that is likely to be very severe as some of the worlds’ swiftest rates of warming are adding a growing volume of potential fuels. Thawing permafrost in drought zones can become a peat-like fuel for fires sparked by recent excess heat and by the new lightning storms that are now starting to invade Canada’s central and northern tiers. Adding to the trouble is a great swath of vegetation lacking in much-needed fire resiliency due to the fact that most plants there have never had to deal with flames. It’s just a simple fact that a human-forced warming of the world has generated a new threat of burning that plants in Canadian provinces have never faced before.
The new Canadian fire season, the one that climate change is bringing on, now starts in April. And it will likely continue on through September of this year. Nearly a half year of wildfires burning in what should have been one of the coldest climate zones in the world. A place now wracked by dangerous and difficult changes. A place where billions of sparks will fly this year over one of the world’s greatest piles of sequestered carbon.
Hat tip to Andy in San Diego
Hat tip to Gordon Meacham