Canada could potentially see increased wildfire activity for the rest of the year, from eastern Alberta to central Ontario, government experts said on Thursday.
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Some existing large fires may continue to burn through September or possibly into late fall, or even into winter.
Forecast maps from Natural Resources Canada and shared with reporters on Thursday show Manitoba is likely to see the most intense fire activity in September, with Saskatchewan, Eastern Alberta and Western Ontario also likely to see “above-average” fire activity.
“Wildfires have always occurred in Canada, but what is new is their frequency and their intensity. The science is clear. The root cause of this is climate change,” Jonathan Wilkinson, federal minister for energy and natural resources, said on Thursday.
Wilkinson also announced new funding for B.C. and N.W.T. to fight wildfires.
“In the last few days we have finalized agreements with both British Columbia and with Northwest Territories, through which B.C. will receive $32 million and over $28 million will be provided to Northwest Territories over the next five years. This federal funding will be supplemented by provincial and territorial contributions,” he said.
Dry weather might mean some new fires could also get started.
According to data from Natural Resources Canada, the country saw a total of 6,174 fires as of Sept. 6, with over a thousand burning currently. With 284 evacuation orders issued this year, 232,209 people have been evacuated.
Large fires in Nunavut, northwestern B.C. and northern Alberta may continue to burn.
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Experts said while this is not a huge jump over the 10-year average or the 25-year average, the fires this year have been more intense and have burned over a much larger area than in previous years to become the worst wildfire season Canada has yet seen.
Across Canada, 16.5 million hectares burned in wildfires.
This is four times larger than the entire area of Switzerland.
Cumulatively, the 20-year average has been just over two million hectares nationally. This year, two fires have exceeded one million hectares each, with possibility of more by end of the month.
Four provinces and one territory saw records set in terms of area burnt in wildfires, with 5.3 million hectares in Quebec, 3.6 million hectares in Northwest Territories, 2.3 million hectares in Alberta, 1.9 million hectares in B.C. and 25,000 hectares in Nova Scotia.
Wilkinson said Natural Resources Canada is making $256 million available over five years to provinces and territories to procure lifesaving wildland firefighting equipment and essential personnel.
“To date, Alberta. British Columbia. Nova Scotia. Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories and Yukon have access to this fund this year, and we expect all jurisdictions to participate next year.”
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Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan said, “While there are some positive signs of the major wildfires being held, hot and dry conditions continue to pose a risk in many areas, even once the fires are considered contained, dealing with their aftermath is no easy task.”
The wildfires have also made greenhouse gas emissions worse, with an estimated 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted so far this year.
But the cost of fighting the wildfires has also been immense. Natural Resources Canada said the biggest area of cost is the effort that goes into fire suppression, which is going to be “significant” this year according to experts.
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B.C., Alberta, N.W.T and Saskatchewan are the only jurisdictions that have shared the cost of fire suppression in the year so far.
The cost of fire suppression in these four jurisdictions amounts to around $1.4 billion.
Government officials said this does not take into account insured property losses, which may run anywhere between $700 million and $1.5 billion, or the cost associated with economic interruption, evacuations and repatriation, loss to human health and disruption of the forest economy.
Both Wilkinson and Sajjan used the press conference to criticize Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, saying the reality of climate change cannot be ignored.
“Since Mr. Poilievre became the leader of the Conservative Party, the words ‘climate change’ have barely passed his lips,” Wilkinson said. Sajjan said, “Canadians can’t afford to look away, but Pierre Poilievre can. Because he wants to fan the flames of division and distract with rhetoric and dog whistle language. Because the leader of the Conservative Party has no plan to fight climate change.”
Sajjan added the military was also playing a crucial role. The Canadian Armed Forces are assisting with firefighting activities, planning and coordination of airlift: personnel, equipment, aircraft, planning and logistics capacity.
The firefighting effort this year has been monumental, with 4,714 firefighters engaged in fire suppression. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) has coordinated the movement of over 17,000 pieces of equipment.
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