Wildfire crews in Canada continue to battle hundreds of blazes across the country as air quality in major cities remains poor and other regions brace for intense heat. And as the country burns, experts warn Canada needs to do a better job of readying its communities in areas increasingly prone to destructive blazes.
More than half of the 414 fires across the country are out of control, said the emergency preparedness minister, Bill Blair – with the hottest and driest months still to come.
Paul Kovacs, the executive director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at Western University, said Canada was increasingly seeing two wildfire peaks: one in the late summer, and one in the spring.
“When the snow melts early in the spring, and hot, dry weather comes very early, you have this window of vulnerability,” he said. “Spring fire is much more evident than it was 20 or 30 years ago. And while we might get a bit of quiet in the coming weeks as the green returns, we’ll be on edge all over again soon after.”
Weeks of late spring wildfires have broken records in many regions of Canada, including in Nova Scotia, where sprawling, destructive wildfires are rare.
In Quebec, where more than 160 fires are burning and the smoke has pushed down into the United States prompting dozens of air quality warnings, the province’s premier pleaded with residents to follow evacuation orders.
“Don’t put your life in danger,” said the premier, François Legault. “When we ask you to evacuate it’s because there’s a real risk.”
In the worst-hit areas, northern Quebec and the western Abitibi region, no rain is forecast in the coming days.
“I want us all to be realistic so that we don’t see things through rose-coloured glasses,” said Legault. Already more than 11,000 people have been displaced by the wildfires and a record 457,000 hectares have burned.
“In the history of [the agency] – nearly 50 years – we’ve surpassed the worst year on record,” Quebec’s natural resources minister, Maïté Blanchette Vézina, told reporters. “It’s a situation that’s unprecedented.”
Legault told reporters the province was working with France, the United States, Portugal, Spain and Mexico to get additional fire crews, adding he was hopeful the number of firefighters on the ground would jump from 520 to 1,200 in the coming weeks. The Canadian armed forces already have 150 members helping battle the fires, but the military commanders say requests from all over the country are putting a strain on resources.
Even in regions where wildfire is a more common seasonal occurrence, records appear set to fall. British Columbia is struggling to contain the Donnie Creek wildfire, already more than 3,100 square kilometres in size and projected to keep growing. The blaze in north-eastern BC is the second largest ever recorded for the province.
In Ontario, where the nation’s capital and surrounding communities have spent days under a thick haze of smoke, the premier, Doug Ford, has not yet called for a province-wide ban on campfires, despite more than 50 blazes in the province.
During a legislative session in Toronto, he accused the New Democratic party leader, Marit Stiles, of “politicizing” the wildfires after she asked him why he was not linking the blazes to human-caused climate change.
Ford instead said lightning and campfires were to blame. “They happen every single year,” he said. Ford’s natural resources minister told reporters that climate change was “real and happening”.
As the country grapples with historically high temperatures, prolonged periods of drought, officials have started speaking about more proactive measures.
“In coming years, we will have to reflect seriously on how we can equip ourselves to deal with this new reality,” the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, told reporters on Wednesday, adding the government might create a federal disaster-response agency to better enable officials to “predict, protect and act”.
But Kovacs said the country already had a plan – it just needed more money.
In 2005, the federal government and provinces developed the Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy. At the time, they suggested C$2.32bn (US$1.74bn) was needed to better address wildfire risk. But, after 10 years, only C$1.47bn was spent.
“We know what we need to do. We have a plan. We just need to fund it,” he said.
Kovacs also says the recent fires highlight the need for a nationwide building code that reflects the growing risk of intense fires.
“Our infrastructure construction should be wildfire resilient and should be part of how we live as a nation,” he said.
“In addition to the conversation about more firefighters and how to organize them, there’s also a need for how to live with fire, and in particular, how to build our buildings and take care of our buildings so that they’re safe from fire.”