Wildfires are a natural part of many ecosystems, clearing away dead and dying vegetation and returning nutrients to the soil. However, as climate change leads to hotter, drier conditions in many regions, the number and severity of wildfires has increased dramatically around the world, including in Canada. Massive wildfires have become an annual occurrence in many parts of the country, taking lives, destroying property and disrupting communities.
As Canada contends with worsening wildfires, understanding their causes, impacts and prevention strategies will be key to adapting and building resilience. This comprehensive guide examines the factors behind Canada’s growing wildfire risks, the wide-ranging effects, and the measures experts recommend for reducing future outbreaks.
Causes of Wildfires in Canada
Canada has seen a marked increase in both the number and intensity of wildfires in recent decades. Here are the key factors behind this concerning trend:
Climate Change and Increasing Temperatures
- Rising global temperatures due to climate change are the biggest contributor to more frequent and extreme wildfires in Canada.
- Higher temperatures lead to hotter, drier conditions that make vegetation more flammable.
- Increased instances of drought create tinderbox conditions for wildfires to easily ignite and spread.
- Canada’s climate has warmed at over twice the global rate, driving worsening fire weather.
Earlier Snowmelt and Drying Trends
- Spring snowpack is melting sooner, depriving forests of moisture during summer months.
- Drying patterns linked to climate change make vegetation and soil more prone to burning.
- Reduced moisture enables fires to grow bigger and spread faster than in the past.
Increase in Thunderstorms and Lightning
- Lightning is one of the top natural causes of wildfires in Canada.
- Research shows lightning strikes could increase by over 10% for every degree of warming.
- More storms mean greater ignition risks, especially in remote northern areas.
Prolonged Fire Seasons
- The wildfire season in Canada now starts earlier and extends later into autumn.
- Longer seasons mean forests are vulnerable to burning for a greater portion of the year.
- Extended fire seasons intensify the threat and potential for large, uncontrolled blazes.
Insect Outbreaks and Disease
- Climate change has enabled bark beetles, defoliators and other pests to flourish.
- Infestations kill vast stands of trees, increasing fuel for potential wildfires.
- Dead trees and fallen limbs act as kindling, amplifying fire risk and behavior.
Forest Management Practices
- Policy shifts away from actively managing forests have increased fuel loads and fire risks.
- Reduced logging and suppression of natural blazes have allowed dead wood to accumulate.
- Denser forests with more ladder fuels now enable fire to climb into the canopy.
Human Activity and Ignitions
- People are the cause of over half of wildfires in Canada through debris burning, campfires etc.
- Growing wildland-urban interface puts more homes and structures at risk if fires spread.
- Arson, power lines, machinery use and railroads can also ignite potentially disastrous blazes.
The Devastating Impacts of Wildfires in Canada
The consequences of worsening wildfires for communities, ecosystems, infrastructure and the economy are far-reaching:
Loss of Life and Homes
- Wildfires have directly caused hundreds of deaths in Canada over the last century.
- Hundreds of communities have been partially or completely destroyed.
- Over 15,000 buildings were lost in the Fort McMurray fire alone in 2016.
Health Effects from Smoke Exposure
- Toxic smoke from massive wildfires impacts air quality for millions downwind.
- Fine particulate matter and gases exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular conditions.
- Long-term health effects remain uncertain from repeat exposure over time.
Billions in Firefighting Costs
- Federal firefighting costs have doubled in the last decade to over $1 billion annually.
- Provinces collectively spend hundreds of millions more on fire suppression each year.
- These expenses divert public resources from other priorities.
Widespread Evacuations and Displacement
- Entire communities often evacuate during extreme fire events, disrupting lives.
- Many evacuees wind up in temporary shelters or unable to return home.
- Displacement strains emergency response services and local economies.
Damage and Losses for the Forestry Industry
- Timber losses from burned forests tally in the billions, harming the forestry sector.
- Mills have reduced operations or closed during prolonged regional blazes.
- Restoring burned areas to productive forests will take decades and huge investments.
Tourism and Recreation Impacts
- Wildfires frequently close provincial and national parks at peak season.
- Poor air quality deters outdoor recreation and tourism for extended periods.
- Popular facilities, trails, campgrounds and resorts can be damaged or destroyed.
- Electrical transmission lines, pipelines, railroads, and highways are all vulnerable to wildfires.
- Utility disruptions affect communities far from fire zones relying on the damaged infrastructure.
- Rebuilding damaged infrastructure is extremely expensive and time-consuming.
Ecological Effects on Wildlife and Habitat
- Intense fires permanently alter soil composition, vegetation and waterways.
- Burned areas can lack food and shelter for deer, birds and small mammals.
- A mosaic of different aged forest stands is ideal, but megafires create uniformity.
Increased Erosion and Flood Risks
- Hot wildfires bake soils, increasing runoff and erosion potential.
- Sedimentation and debris affect water quality and can worsen downstream flooding.
- Rain can also now rapidly run off burned sloped instead of soaking into the ground.
Release of Stored Carbon
- Wildfires transform forests from carbon sinks into major carbon emitters.
- Huge amounts of stored carbon are expelled rapidly into the atmosphere by burning.
- This amplifies the greenhouse effect and climate change risks.
Preventing and Preparing for Future Wildfires
Experts recommend an “all hands on deck” approach across many sectors to prepare for worsening fire regimes and mitigate risks:
Forest Management Practices
- Strategic prescribed burns reduce dangerous fuel buildups and restore natural cycles.
- Selective thinning decreases stand density and ladder fuels that enable crown fires.
- Harvesting dying timber and clearing brush limits potential ignition sources and flareups.
Fuel Reduction Around Communities
- Fireproofing the wildland-urban interface protects homes and structures.
- Clearing and maintenance of defensible space buffers improves suppression capacity.
- Restricting flammable vegetation and using fire-resistant materials raise resilience.
Fire Detection and Suppression
- Expanding the use of remote cameras, drones, satellites and ai aids early detection.
- Increasing firefighting personnel, equipment and aircraft improves emergency response.
- Better inter-agency coordination, training and communication bolster capabilities.
Public Education and Prevention
- Informing the public on fire risks and preparedness measures saves lives.
- Reducing accidental ignitions remains crucial through awareness campaigns.
- Teaching property owners mitigation techniques limits structural losses.
Upgrading Critical Infrastructure
- Burying power lines helps prevent ignition sources and service disruptions.
- Improved building codes and materials reduce infrastructure vulnerabilities.
- Hardening transportation networks maintains evacuation routes and access.
Urban Planning and Land Use
- Stricter regulations on development limit expansion into fire-prone wildlands.
- Clustering buildings surrounded by fire breaks instead of scattered homes.
- Zoning reforms discouraging construction on the most hazardous sites.
Emergency Planning and Response
- Detailed evacuation plans and practice drills save lives during fast-moving disasters.
- Stockpiling supplies improves logistics for supplying shelters and services.
- Cross-training for emergency personnel enables flexible, integrated responses.
Climate Change Mitigation
- Reducing greenhouse gas emissions can limit some projected warming and fire impacts.
- Phasing out fossil fuels and expanding renewables avoids a worst-case scenario.
- Global cooperation is essential, as wildfires transcend borders as a shared threat.
Research and Adaptation
- Expanding fire and climate modeling informs risk analysis and readiness.
- Developing new technologies like fire-resistant materials and predictive services.
- Monitoring ecosystem changes from past fires guides rehabilitation programs.
Frequently Asked Questions about Canada Wildfires
What caused the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016?
The massive Fort McMurray wildfire in May 2016 that forced the evacuation of 80,000 people and destroyed over 2,400 homes was started by human activity. Investigators concluded the fire was likely ignited by sparks from a nearby regenerative burner used to dispose of vegetative debris and waste. Hot, dry and windy conditions allowed the fire to grow out of control.
How much of Canada’s forests have burned in wildfires?
According to Natural Resources Canada, close to 3% of Canada’s total forested area burns annually from both natural and human-caused wildfires. Since the 1970s, an average of 2.3 million hectares have burned each year. The annual area burned has more than doubled over the last few decades as fire seasons worsen.
What was Canada’s most destructive wildfire season?
The worst wildfire season in Canada’s history was in 1995, with over 7.5 million hectares burning that year. Fires started early after a dry winter and spring. British Columbia was especially hard hit, with communities like Barriere, Little Fort and Campbell River suffering major fires. 1995 still holds the record for the most hectares burned in B.C. during a fire season.
How many deaths have been caused by wildfires in Canada?
According to reports, at least 1,010 people have lost their lives in Canada directly or indirectly due to wildfires since 1900. The real number is likely higher, as historical records are incomplete. Canada’s deadliest documented wildfire occurred in Quebec in 1870, with at least 1,000 people killed. More recently, wildfires in 2016 forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray andSlave Lake, but no deaths were reported.
What are the most destructive wildfires in Canadian history?
Some of the most destructive wildfires, in terms of structures burned, include:
- The 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire that destroyed approximately 2,400 homes
- The Great Fire of Toronto in 1904 which burned over 100 buildings
- The Slave Lake wildfire in 2011 that burned over 30% of the town and hundreds of structures
- The 1949 Manitoba wildfires around Winnipeg that left thousands homeless
- The 2003 blazes in Barriere, BC that destroyed 239 homes and businesses
How do wildfires impact biodiversity and ecological habitats?
Wildfires shape forest ecology, but very severe fires can permanently scar landscapes and harm biodiversity. Intense crown fires can cook the soil, slowing forest regeneration. With climate change, fires are burning bigger, hotter and more uniformly. This reduces ecosystem heterogeneity. On the other hand, mixed severity fires create variety in age classes and habitat conditions, promoting resilience. Balanced fire management is needed.
Subscribe to our list
Don't worry, we don't spam
How long do the effects of wildfire smoke last?
How long wildfire smoke affects a region depends on the fire’s size, the weather, and distance from populated areas. Larger fires can spew smoke and degraded air quality for weeks across huge areas downwind. During severe fire seasons, prolonged smoke exposure is a health concern, especially for sensitive groups like children and the elderly. Officials advise staying indoors as much as possible when smoke events occur. Monitoring local air quality readings is important.
As wildfires worsen each year in Canada, we need long-term solutions balanced across suppression, mitigation, adaptation, and emissions reductions. Investing in fire research, risk mapping, resilient infrastructure, and preventive forest management will pay dividends. However, effectively dealing with this growing threat requires urgent collective action across all sectors, from government to industry to private citizens. With proactive policies and public engagement, Canada can become a leader in fire readiness while also contributing to the global effort against rapid climate change.