Across the globe, summer 2023 was reported as the hottest summer on record. In Canada, these record-breaking temperatures were especially noticeable in the northern regions, such as British Columbia and the Northwest territories. These conditions resulted in a severe wildfire season across the country. Instigated by extreme heat and dryness, the flames spread quickly, leading to a vast area being burned from a single fire. Canada surpassed its record for most area burned during one season. This record was broken as early as June 27. The early onset of these record-breaking statistics is frightening and has been prompting discussions about the imminent threat of climate change.
Due to the changing climate, Canadian forests are becoming less resistant to fires. Factors such as altered rainfall cycles and warm dry conditions are affecting even the oldest and most diverse Canadian forests, leading to an increase in the frequency and severity of fires. Pine beetles, a species native to North America, are small beetles that burrow and attack pine trees. In response to the warmer weather brought about by climate change, these beetles can now survive the winter, a season that has previously been too cold. Their existence throughout the winter months has led to an increase of dead, free standing pine trees. This increase creates what experts label as “ample kindling”—dry lumber vulnerable to fires come spring.
However, not all forest fires are worrisome. In fact, fires are natural to nature and support our ecosystem, disposing of litter while promoting new growth. Also, the Boreal forest, which spans a vast region of Canada, normally functions as a “carbon sink”. This term describes the forest’s ability to absorb more greenhouse gasses than are commonly emitted by wildfires. Yet, this season surpassed this threshold. The wildfires of 2023 produced triple the amount of Canada’s annual greenhouse emissions. As the normal short, cool, and moist summer months of the Boreal forest become a long, hot, and dry season, the once labeled carbon sink is shifting to a carbon source. In light of this statistic, experts predict a dangerous cycle, warning that these emissions will lead to further warming, and thus more severe wildfire seasons.
In addition to further global warming, the destructive course of these wildfires presents more immediate consequences. Across the country, Canadians suffered from evacuations and lost homes. This destruction of homes can be seen not only for humans, but animals as well. Due to the regularity of forest fires, many animals are able to adapt to sudden flames, as larger animals can leave the area quickly and smaller animals often burrow beneath the ground. However, despite their immediate survival from the flames, the animals are left to survive in a new landscape with the need to find food and shelter. The burns left in the wake of a wildfire create a new landscape, one unfamiliar to the animals and lacking much of their normal food. This burned landscape often promotes the growth of invasive species before native species can reestablish. Due to these alterations of the land, many animals leave the burned forest and often wander into densely populated human areas looking for food.
Prince George, British Columbia witnessed these effects as an increase in bears was noticed throughout the city. Bears are not strangers to this industrial area surrounded by forests, with sightings being common throughout the warmer months. However, Prince George residents reported the number of sightings of 2023 to be extremely high. The movement of animals to populated cities is dangerous for humans and animals. As a result of the lost habitats and desperate search for food, 21 bears were killed in less than three weeks in Prince George.
As of September 29, 2023, 6,296 fires have been recorded during the wildfire season affecting a total of 17,874,112 ha of land, and these figures are still growing. The start of October saw over 800 fires still burning across the country. Natural Resources Canada actively reports via satellite hotspot that fires persist in British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. In wake of the 2023 wildfire season, Canadians are left facing a grim and dystopian future. A future that relies on action from a climate-realistic and accountable government.