Canadian wildfires portend evacuations, smoky skies this summer in Montana

A almost unending cycle of Canadian wildfires prompts mass evacuations of remote communities and a likelihood of smoke filled Montana skies in the summer ahead
A almost unending cycle of Canadian wildfires prompts mass evacuations of remote communities and a likelihood of smoke filled Montana skies in the summer ahead

Following a week and a half of unseasonably cool, wet weather at the beginning of May most central Montanans were grateful for the few days of sunshine and warm temperatures that moved into the state. However, even as daytime highs crept up into the mid- to upper-70s a hazy pall dimmed the skies over much of northern and eastern Montana.

In an unwelcomed return to unhealthy conditions that plagued states from Montana to New York throughout the summer of 2023, smoke from wildfires burning across western Canada is once again drifting south across the border.

On Monday, May 13 Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) warned that air quality in Great Falls, Sidney, Glendive, and Miles City was acceptable but poor enough to place people with chronic conditions like asthma or cardiovascular disease at risk. The air in Malta was even worse prompting a warning that children, pregnant women, and older adults could be adversely affected.

Favorable wind conditions have already blown the smoke out of Montana, but air quality alerts remain in effect in parts of Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and for much of Wisconsin and Iowa. It's early in the Canadian wildfire season, but according to Canadian officials there is a significant possibility that 2024 will experience a repeat of the record-breaking wildfire season that charred an area roughly the size of Nebraska just a year ago.

“This winter, Canadians experienced warmer-than-normal temperatures and widespread drought conditions across the country, adding to existing drought and low-water conditions,” a news release from Public Safety Canada states. “The latest seasonal weather outlook indicates that higher-than-normal temperatures are expected for the spring and summer, boosted by El Nino weather conditions. This sets the stage for the possibility of another active wildfire season and other incidents of extreme weather.”

The Canadian Ministry of Environment and Climate Change warns that a bad drought, warm temperatures, and below normal snowfall accumulation could lead to conditions that will rival last year’s record setting wildfire season. In 2023 wildfire evacuations reached 230,000 people and the fires burned nearly 50 million acres. Already this year 134 blazes are burning across Canada. Many are small in remote areas of the provinces, but two, one in Alberta and one in British Columbia have already raged across tens of thousands of acres and prompted the evacuation of thousands of residents.

On Tuesday afternoon the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo northeast of Edmonton, Alberta advised around 6,000 residents of neighborhoods around Fort McMurray to evacuate in the face of extreme fire activity that has already burned around 51,000 acres. Roads out of Fort McMurray were crammed with evacuating cars Tuesday as the advancing fire crept toward the city’s edge.

Fort McMurray is a hub for Alberta’s tar sands oil production. The current fire conjures up memories of the 2016 catastrophe when the Horse River wildfire forced the full evacuation of nearly 70,000 people and destroyed 2,400 homes. The 2016 fires caused billions of dollars in damage and became one of the costliest natural disasters in Canadian history.

Further west in British Columbia years of drought and below-normal snowpack this past winter have driven the Parker Lake wildfire to within little more than a mile from the edge of Fort Nelson. More than 4,000 people were evacuated from the oncoming blaze.

Chicago was under air quality alerts several times during the summer of 2023 as wildfire smoke blew in from Canada.
Chicago was under air quality alerts several times during the summer of 2023 as wildfire smoke blew in from Canada.

Rob Fraser, mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality told evacuees gathered in Fort St. John that it was by “the grace of God” that the blaze didn’t sweep into the community on May 10 when driving winds hit 43-miles-per-hour.

“Extreme weather events are becoming far too familiar to Canadians as the impacts of climate change hit our communities,” said Canadian Minister of Environment Steven Guilbeault. “After the staggering wildfire season of 2023, we are once again facing the potential for another active wildfire season this year. It is a stark reminder that we need to work together to reduce the risks from our changing climate to keep Canadian communities safe.”

Some of the fires burning in the western provinces today actually began in 2023. These overwintering or “zombie” fires only ebbed when the winter snows arrived. Some remained smoldering in the soil and peat beneath the snowpack, and have now reemerged, hugging the edges of burn scars from last year.

Overwintering fires are not a new phenomenon and are similar in some respects to coal seam fires which have been known to burn beneath the soil surface for years. However, the large number of re-emerging zombie fires is indicative of the severity of last year’s fire season and the ongoing impacts of climate change.

This article originally appeared on Great Falls Tribune: Montana air quality warnings begin thanks to Canadian wildfires