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CLIMATE CRISIS

Wildfires poised to scorch more land than ever in Canada this year

Pedestrians pass buildings shrouded in smoke from wildfires in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on 17 May 2023. (Photo: Todd Korol / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Canada is on track to see its worst wildfire season in recorded history if the rate of land burned continues at the same pace.

The country is experiencing an unprecedented amount of fire activity for this early in the season, scorching approximately 3.3 million hectares (8.2 million acres) — almost double the area of Lake Ontario — so far this year, according to Canadian government officials. That’s 13 times more than the average in the past decade for the same period.

“Year after year, with climate change, we’re seeing more and more intense wildfires and in places where they don’t normally happen,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday at a briefing in Ottawa. “This is a scary time for a lot of people.”

Some 413 active fires are burning across the country, from the westernmost province of British Columbia to Nova Scotia on the east coast, prompting 26,000 Canadians to evacuate their homes. The most out-of-control blazes are raging in Quebec. Officials blame climate change for increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires.

Canada is facing an early and aggressive surge of wildfires this year.

Trudeau sought to assure Canadians that his government was prepared for a possible record-breaking wildfire season, as well as a potential future where coast-to-coast blazes are the new normal. As he faces challenges to his environmental agenda from the opposition Conservatives and newly reelected Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, he pointed to the personal impacts of climate change on Canadians who have been forced to evacuate or lost their homes.

The federal government is projecting the potential for higher-than-normal fire activity across most of the country through to August. Warm and dry conditions will increase the risk in June, particularly for the area stretching from BC to western Quebec.

“It is, in a word, sobering,” Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said. “Every province and territory will need to be on high alert throughout this wildfire season.”

Trudeau’s government has approved requests from Quebec, Nova Scotia and Alberta for federal assistance, including deployment of Canadian Armed Forces members. Firefighters have been mobilized between provinces to help in areas where they are most needed, and hundreds of personnel have been sent from the US, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Costa Rica.

Canada has the resources to fight the wildfires if they continue along the projected trajectory, according to Trudeau. If the situation becomes worse than expected, the government will turn to its contingency plans, including leaning more on international crews.

Provinces and territories share responsibility with the federal government for wildfires. Officials pointed to federal initiatives including strengthening emergency management capacity in First Nations communities. Canada has also spent C$346-million ($258 million) on firefighting equipment and training of community-based firefighters.

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