Thousands Evacuate as Wildfires Tear Through Western Canada

Large fires in several of Canada’s western provinces have prompted the evacuation of thousands as the fires near several prominent towns, including Fort McMurray, a key centre for oil production in the nation and the site of previous devastating fires.

Expanding Flames

As weather begins to warm, and minimal rain falls, the number of forest fires in Canada are expanding. As of May 15th, Canada has over 130 wildfires ongoing, 42 of which are considered to be “out of control.”

Wildfires have hit the worst in Canada’s British Columbia (BC), Alberta, and Manitoba provinces.

Within BC, a fire raging in the northeastern portion of the province, near to Fort Nelson, has forced the evacuation of at least 4,800 people, including the Fort Nelson First Nation. In this particular area, favourable weather conditions gave firefighters a small reprieve, however these conditions are only temporary.

In Alberta, a 51,000 acre wildfire has forced the evacuation of certain neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray, in the north of the province. Already over 6,600 people in Fort McMurray and nearby areas have evacuated, and the remainder of the town has been put on an evacuation alert.

The fire’s proximity to the town has drummed up memories of the 2016 wildfire which hit the down. Nicknamed ‘the beast’, the 2016 Fort McMurray fires were a massive 1.5 million acres, destroyed 10% of the town, and was the most expensive natural disaster in Canada’s history, incurring costs of 3.58 billion dollars.

A photo of a fire raging near to Fort McMurray, Alberta, on May 7th, 2016 (Photo from Mark Blinch/Reuters).

As mentioned, Fort McMurray is one of the centres for oilsands in Canada. Any fire in proximity to these areas threatens production, and could represent economic strain for Canada and the companies which operate there.

Manitoba’s wildfires are raging even larger, with the largest of the fires being 78,000 acres. The fire has come within a mile of the small town of Cranberry Portage, forcing the evacuation of approximately 500 people.

A photo of Manitoba Premier, Wab Kinew, surveying wildfires in Manitoba from a helicopter (Photo from David Lipnowski/AP).

Record Breaking Fires

The fires are also reminiscent of last years record breaking fires.

The Canadian 2023 wildfires burned in every province and territory, and beat Canada’s previous wildfire record by a significant margin. The 2023 fires burned approximately 185,000km2 (71,414mi2, or 45.7 million acres), which accounted for a whopping five percent of Canada’s forest. This was 2.5x Canada’s previous record.

The smoke from Canada’s fires affected virtually the whole country at some point, and spread to some areas of the US and even Europe, after the smoke travelled across the Atlantic.

The firefighting response saw a number of different nations from around the world deploy firefighters in an effort to assist Canada in containing their fires.

Some of the fires that are burning this year are remnants of those which burned last year. Known as “holdover fires,” or sometimes “zombie fires,” these fires are often smoldering remains which continue to burn through the winter deep in the ground, before reigniting once spring hits.

Driving Causes

According to Environment Canada, and a number of environmental scientists, climate change remains a driving force behind the wildfires. For last year, the May-July season was the warmest recorded in Canada in 80 years. Unusually high temperatures early in the year, mixed with unusually dry conditions (in a region that is already typically dry) made many areas in Canada, in particular in the west and the north, easy grounds for a fire to begin.

This year, the winter in western Canada was remarkably warm, and saw very little snow, once again creating favourable conditions for a fire to begin.

In Alberta specifically, the provincial government had made a number of cuts to various wildfire services in the years leading up to 2023.

In 2019, the government cut funding for the Rappel Attack Program (RAP), which ended the nearly 40 year long program. The RAP trained personnel in order to rappel from helicopters into inaccessible areas to fight fires.

Further cuts to funding in 2021 forced Alberta Wildfire to lay off some permanent staff, and in 2022 to cut the season length of wildfire personnel by 10 percent, leading to significant problems.

When the 2023 fires came, the Alberta government came under severe scrutiny for these cuts.

Continual cuts over the years have given Alberta significant issues in retaining firefighting personnel, providing them unique challenges when it comes to fighting fires.

Sébastien Gray
Sébastien Gray
Sébastien Gray is a published journalist and historicist with over 5 years experience in writing. His primary focus is on East and West African affairs.


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