Canada's fire season is off to an intense start • Earth.com

Canada's fire season is off to an intense start

Today’s Image of the Day from NASA Earth Observatory features smoke from fires around the Canadian community of Fort Nelson and streaming east into Alberta on May 11, 2024.

Canada is currently facing an intense start to its wildland fire season, following a severe season last year. 

By mid-May, parts of British Columbia were already shrouded in smoke from early and aggressive wildfires, a phenomenon typically seen much later in the summer. 

Satellite observations of Canada fires

The image was captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. 

Additional observations by NASA’s Terra satellite and others showed the smoke plume rising several kilometers into the air and spreading into the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions of the United States, where it raised air quality concerns.

Fires fueled by dry conditions and high winds

One particularly dangerous fire, which ignited on May 10, rapidly expanded southeast of Fort Nelson and a nearby First Nation community, threatening around 3,400 residents. 

Dry conditions and high winds from a passing cold front fueled the blaze, prompting immediate evacuation orders for the area. 

Cliff Chapman, British Columbia’s Wildfire Service Director of Provincial Operations, advised against travel near Fort Nelson due to the fire’s severe intensity and rapid spread.

Holdover fires in Canada

To the north, several other fires consumed tens of thousands of hectares. Some of these were “holdover” fires, which persisted under the snow throughout the winter and rekindled in the spring, fed by vegetation dried from ongoing severe drought conditions as per the North American Drought Monitor.

Carbon emissions

This year’s fire intensity and carbon emissions in British Columbia are notably high, with Mark Parrington, an atmospheric scientist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, reporting over 5 megatons of carbon emissions from the province’s wildfires by mid-May – marking the highest May emissions in 22 years. 

Parrington’s assessments, part of the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, utilize data from the Global Fire Assimilation System, which incorporates MODIS fire observations from NASA’s satellites.

Canada fires in 2023

The 2023 wildfire season in Canada was particularly intense and significant due to a combination of factors including climate conditions and human impacts

Throughout the season, Canada experienced an unusually high number of wildfires, which affected vast areas across the country, particularly in regions like British Columbia and Alberta. 

Challenging conditions 

These fires were fueled by a combination of dry weather, higher than average temperatures, and strong winds, creating challenging conditions for firefighting efforts.

Air quality

The smoke from the wildfires had a profound impact on air quality, not only in Canada but also in parts of the United States, leading to health advisories and concerns over air pollution. The fires prompted widespread evacuations and significant damage to properties and ecosystems. 

Climate change

The season highlighted the growing concerns over climate change as a driving force behind the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfire events. 

The Canadian government and local authorities were actively engaged in firefighting and mitigation efforts, but the scale of the fires called for an increased focus on long-term strategies for fire prevention and forest management.

Impact of wildfires on human health

Wildfires have a significant impact on human health, affecting both physical and mental well-being. 

Physical health

The most immediate health issue is the inhalation of smoke, which contains a mix of harmful gases and fine particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. 

This can lead to respiratory problems, such as asthma exacerbations, bronchitis, and other chronic lung conditions. 

Additionally, exposure to wildfire smoke has been linked to cardiovascular issues, including heart attacks and strokes, particularly in older adults and those with pre-existing health conditions.

Mental health

Beyond physical health, wildfires can also have a profound effect on mental health. The stress and trauma of experiencing a wildfire, losing property, or being displaced can lead to mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Moreover, the recovery and rebuilding process can be lengthy and stressful, further impacting mental health.

Additional challenges 

People in affected areas often face challenges with water and food safety due to contamination from fire-related chemicals and debris. The destruction of infrastructure can also limit access to medical care and health services, exacerbating all these health issues. 

Overall, the impact of wildfires on human health is complex and can be long-lasting, necessitating both immediate and long-term public health interventions to support affected communities.

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory 

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