Right now, eastern North America sits under a blanket of choking smoke and an eerie orange haze more appropriate to the surface of Mars than the Great Lakes or Atlantic Seaboard.
The cause: an unprecedented number of spring wildfires burning in the Canadian province of Quebec — 164 of them as of Monday morning. It was a similar story two weeks ago, when drifting smoke from an intense outbreak of wildfires in western Canada cast a pall over much of the east.
The result is a battle on multiple fronts: in the fire zones, where firefighters and residents are struggling to contain the blazes and stay safe; in communities downwind, where poor air quality is closing schools and businesses; and on the dockets of emergency planners and researchers tasked with determining what locations might be vulnerable to future wildfires, and how to better understand their broader reverberations.
In the long term, this last might be the most significant of all the urgent questions.
More fires are breaking out, at different times and in different places. This year, through Sunday, some 2,214 wildfires have burned through 3.3 million hectares of Canada’s forests, scrub and grasslands. The 10-year average for the same period is 1,624 fires and 254,429 hectares burned — about 13 times less. Mike Flannigan, a fire sciences professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, points out that this year’s strong early fire season even includes Northwest Territories, where snow cover typically delays large outbreaks until later.
It’s a theme that connects Canada’s current wildfire season with a global trend: evident in Britain in 2022, where wildfire destroyed homes in London for the first time; during Australia’s epic bush fires in 2019, which burned millions of hectares of vegetation, including in the Gondwana rainforest, where fire was rare; and in recent fires on the Oregon coast in 2020, where it’s typically too moist to burn.
Clearly, many people in places that never had to think about wildfire before need to start doing so now.
In the United States, the greatest increase in future wildfire threat will be — perhaps counterintuitively — in the verdant, humid states in the Southeast, according to data scientists at First Street Foundation, a New York nonprofit that models climate-related risks. Current moisture levels contain many fires in the region right now, but warmer, faster-drying conditions in the future have the potential to turn that area’s abundant vegetation into extra fuel to burn.
The cause of all this is known, of course. Specific wildfire triggers are varied, but most experts blame human-caused climate change for their expanding reach. As well as drying things out, a warmer world leads to more of what fire scientists call “fire weather” — hot, dry, windy days that can turn a small, early-winter grass fire into a racing inferno, such as the 2021 Marshall Fire in Boulder County, Colo. First detected the morning of Dec. 30, within 12 hours it was the most destructive fire in the state’s history, causing $2 billion in property damage.
There are efforts to prepare for the surge in fires. A team in Britain, for instance, is working to develop the country’s first Fire Danger Rating System, a response to the growing incidence of recent large-scale wildfires and the need to understand this threat. Even Canada, with extensive wildfire history, is upping its game: The Canadian Forest Service plans to publish the country’s first-ever national risk assessment framework for wildland fires. Its goal is to produce “maps and data sets of burn probability and potential fire behaviour for the forested regions … and assess fire risk in and around the Canadian landscape.”
More vexing, perhaps, is devising responses to the wider repercussions, such as smoke. Closing windows, buying air filters, staying at home might work in the short term. But what of the economic costs and longer-term health impacts? If a local factory is spewing pollutants into the air, authorities can shut it down. Containing smoke from wildfires, however — like climate change itself — is a quandary of the commons.
By necessity, resources must be funneled to fire crews and other fire suppression activities to deal with raging wildfires right now. But what the current situation underscores is that we need a much greater understanding of the spread of fires — and all of their impacts — in the future. Without that, it leaves everyone on the front lines, forever fighting a losing battle.