In Montreal, Canada, a pervasive question echoes: “Do you smell smoke?” This week, as hundreds of wildfires rage across the country, an “unprecedented” start to the 2023 Canadian fire season has been witnessed.
With over 3.8 million hectares (9.4 million acres) already scorched, tens of thousands of individuals in various communities have been compelled to evacuate. Firefighters are tirelessly battling to contain the blazes. However, what has alarmed the public, even more, is the presence of smoke-filled skies in regions typically untouched by wildfires. This disturbing phenomenon has sparked widespread concern and demands for authorities to enhance preparedness for a problem that experts warn will only exacerbate.
Caroline Brouillette, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, described the sight of smoky skies casting a yellowish-grey filter over the sun and sky. The air carries the unmistakable scent of burning wood. In an interview, Brouillette emphasized the urgent reality of the climate crisis, stating, “It does really bring home that the climate crisis is happening here and now.”
The severity of the wildfires in Canada serves as a stark reminder of the pressing need for immediate action to address climate change and its devastating consequences.
Long-term health effects
Social media has been inundated with images of orange-tinged skies hanging over Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto, where a dense haze obstructed iconic landmarks like the CN Tower. Surprisingly, even cities hundreds of kilometers away, such as New York City and Washington, DC, have experienced smog as a result of the fires burning near the United States-Canada border.
Air pollution advisories have been issued across Canada, as well as in states in the US Northeast and Midwest, sparking worries about the health implications for millions of people in North America.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams expressed his concern about the alarming situation, acknowledging the unprecedented nature of the event and urging residents to take precautions. He emphasized the need to address climate change and reduce emissions to combat such events in the future.
Jill Baumgartner, an associate professor at McGill University, highlighted the significant increase in pollution levels, which have reached three to four times higher than usual due to the wildfires. The microscopic particles present in wildfire smoke pose substantial health risks, ranging from immediate symptoms like burning eyes and runny noses to long-term complications such as heart and lung diseases.
The widespread impact of the wildfires serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need for climate action and efforts to mitigate the health risks associated with such events.
“We tend to think about wildfire smoke as being an acute or short-term exposure, but we’re seeing that we’re having these events more frequently. Wildfires are more common. They’re happening for long periods of time,” she told Al Jazeera. “We need to start thinking about this probably [as], ‘What are the longer-term impacts of wildfire smoke on health?’”
Hundreds of fires burning
The Canadian government revealed that over 400 wildfires have ravaged the country, with 239 of them categorized as uncontrollable. The ongoing blazes have resulted in the displacement of more than 20,000 individuals.
The province of Quebec alone has witnessed nearly 160 wildfires, prompting the evacuation of numerous residents in the Abitibi-Temiscamingue region.
However, the fires have affected multiple regions across Canada since May, from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick on the east coast to Alberta, British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories in the west.
Mike Flannigan, research chair for predictive services, emergency management, and fire science at Thompson Rivers University, described the current wildfire season as unparalleled in modern-day records.
Flannigan attributed the escalating wildfires to climate change, citing higher temperatures that extend the Canadian wildfire season and an increase in lightning strikes, which account for approximately half of all blazes in the country.
A warmer atmosphere also dries out fire fuels, such as the vegetation on forest floors. These drier fuels then make it easier for fires to start and spread, and they lead to higher intensity fires that “are difficult to impossible to extinguish”, Flannigan said.
“This is our new reality,” he told Al Jazeera. “We’re on a downward trajectory. Things are going to get worse and worse and worse.”
Amidst the ongoing wildfires, Canada has taken significant measures to combat the situation. The deployment of military personnel has been initiated in multiple areas while seeking assistance from other nations.
The federal government has announced substantial investments in wildfire prevention programs and training, particularly focusing on Indigenous communities that have been severely impacted.
Additionally, Ottawa is actively coordinating with local and provincial partners to tackle the crisis effectively.
In a further step towards improved monitoring, the government plans to launch a satellite system dedicated to monitoring fires, smoke, and air quality, ensuring a more comprehensive understanding of the situation.
“We’re in the worst year that we’ve ever had, and our resources are stretched thin, but we will continue to be there as much as possible,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in French during a news conference on Wednesday afternoon.
Recognizing the reality of the situation, it has been acknowledged that Canada should anticipate more frequent occurrences of “extreme” weather events in the coming years.
This understanding emphasizes the need for the country to equip itself with the necessary capabilities to effectively respond and mitigate the impact of such emergencies.
By strengthening response mechanisms, Canada aims to minimize the adverse effects caused by these increasingly frequent extreme weather events.
“And that is by continuing our fight against climate change, continuing to lower our emissions, continuing to transform our economy so as to create good jobs and protect future generations,” he said.
Flannigan said Canada needs to take a more proactive approach to wildfires going forward, including imposing fire bans and closing forests to recreational users and industry “before the fire episode is upon you”.
Authorities also should better prepare to deploy extra fire crews and resources in advance. “Fire is a multifaceted issue that needs a multipronged approach,” he said. “There’s no silver bullet or vaccine that’s going to make this thing go away. We really do have to learn to live with fire.”
Meanwhile, environmental advocates are calling on Canada to do more to address the problem fuelling the recent scenes of wildfire devastation: climate change. The country, home to the Alberta tar sands, was the fourth-largest oil producer in the world in 2020, and activists say it cannot be a climate leader while also continuing to develop oil and gas projects.
“This needs to be a wake-up call,” said Salome Sane, a climate campaigner at Greenpeace Canada, stressing that the blazes should push the Canadian government to hasten a divestment from fossil fuels.
“Fossil fuels are the primary cause of the global climate crisis, and our dependency on them is clearly exacerbating extreme weather events in general, and particularly in this season, the frequency and severity of wildfires,” Sane told Al Jazeera.
“We really need to tackle the root cause, which is fossil-fuel exploitation.”