Wildfires in Canada broke records in 2023 © Malachi Brooks/Unsplash
By Allie Murray
This summer in Canada has been a season like no other—one plagued by wildfires, smoke, air quality warnings, and destruction across the country. While Canada is no stranger to a fiery summer, 2023 marked the most destructive wildfire season on record.
Canada is home to nearly nine per cent of the world’s forests, making it easy for wildfires to quickly become out of control. Online, The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre provided a live map with frequent updates showcasing how many active fires were happening across the country, where they were, how many of which were out of control, and so on. At the time of writing, the interagency recorded some 5,000 wildfires since the beginning of 2023, scorching more than 13.4 million hectares of land, and evacuating thousands from their homes.
The main question Canadian’s are asking is how do wildfires start? And why, this year in particular, are they so bad?
This question is not answered very easily, according to Magda Zachara, Program Manager with FireSmart Canada.
“Approximately 50 per cent of wildfires are human caused in Canada,” she explained. “The public should educate themselves on what they can do to limit those human-caused fires—like ensuring they know how to properly extinguish camp fires, how recreational vehicles can cause sparks, how fireworks can contribute to fires, and so on.”
Similarly, the Government of Canada noted that lightning strikes are also a major cause of wildfires in the country, accounting for nearly 67 per cent of the land area burned.
This year’s fires started earlier than ever before—fires typically rage from May to October, however due to early heat, low precipitation and dry conditions, the fires became out of control earlier. By mid June of this year, Canada had already surpassed the record for area burned by wildfires in a single year.
As the fires continued out of control, firefighters in Canada struggled to keep up with the blazes that raged in both the west, east, and central parts of the country.
According to a survey conducted by Reuters of all 13 provinces and territories, Canada employs around 5,500 wildland firefighters, not including Yukon territory, which did not respond to requests. That is roughly 2,500 firefighters short of what is needed, according to Mike Flannigan, a professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia and wildfire specialist.
To support the need for manpower, more than 700 firefighters arrived in Canada from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, France, Costa Rica, and more to help with the blazes.
The South African firefighters came with the help of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment’s Working on Fire programme. The country sent a contingent of 200 firefighters to Alberta, this year being the fifth time that South African firefighters have come to Canada to assist with wildfires.
“We are proud of the fact that South Africa is again able to assist Canadian firefighting teams in their battle to bring the wildfires under control,” said Minister Barbara Creecy. “The extensive experience and training of these firefighters will significantly enhance efforts to effectively suppress and manage the wildfires in Alberta.”
Going forward, Zachara notes that while we cannot eliminate fire from the landscape, there are ways we can be better prepared for future wildfires.
“Over time, we’re seeing a rise in the occurrence and severity of wildland fire, so it is important for citizens and communities to take proactive measures that help reduce risk to their homes and properties against the risk of wildland fire,” she explained.
She explained that residents can minimize available fuel to feed the fire and ignite structures by using non-combustible materials on their home and removing any combustible materials within the first 1.5 metres of the home.