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Explainer: What You Should Know About the Devastating Wildfires Ravaging in Canada

The ravaging infernos have been continuing to wreak havoc across Canada over the past weeks, and the billowing plumes of smoke generated by the fires are blanketing a large portion of the United States in the last days.

Despite Canada’s annual preparations for its wildfire season, which usually runs from May through October, this year’s fires have far surpassed expectations, resulting in severe damage in such an early stage. While the country finds itself confronting a formidable situation, its neighbor, the United States, is also in urgent need of solutions to the wildfires and secondary problems.

What is the situation in Canada and the United States in the face of wildfires? What are the underlying causes contributing to the wildfire crisis? And most importantly, what actions should be taken to address this pressing issue?

AN EMERGENCY CRISIS

With more than nine million acres of land burnt, over 20,000 residents evacuated and at least 400 fires still active, half of which are believed out of control, a staggering series of figures revealed on Wednesday by Canadian Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair showed that the country is facing an unprecedented battle against the raging wildfires.

“This (the wildfire) could be something we deal with off and on throughout the remainder of the summer,” said Jennifer Gray, a CNN meteorologist, warning that “Canada is still early in their fire season and it has just exploded.”

Echoing Gray, U.S. National Weather Service meteorologist Bryan Ramsey said, “Conditions are likely to remain unhealthy…They’re probably going to continue for weeks.”

The smoke from the wildfires persists, shrouding regions from British Columbia to Quebec, and even impacting the east coast of the United States. The sky takes on an eerie orange hue and visibility dramatically diminishes across northeastern North America.

The ensuing air quality problems pose a serious threat to public health, endangering the well-being of individuals across the affected areas.

“The biggest health threat from wildfire smoke is from these very small, microscopic particles that you breathe in,” said Jill Baumgartner, an associate professor in the School of Population and Global Health at McGill University in Montreal, explaining that they can lead to a variety of problems from burning eyes and runny noses to chronic heart and lung diseases.

However, of particular concern is that the western coast of North America is often the hardest-hit region when it comes to wildfires. As the CBS Boston Chief Meteorologist Eric Fisher noted, “We aren’t just dealing with Canada smoke, we get it in the western United States, too.” The wildfires that ravaged California last year, for example, were a nightmare that no one hopes to revisit.

Photo taken on Sept. 6, 2022 shows a burning building in Hemet, Riverside County, California, the United States. (Xinhua)

According to a report released by the United Nations Environment Programme last year, the number of extreme wildfire events will increase by up to 14 percent by 2030 and 30 percent by 2050. People have no alternative but to accept the new normalcy to “learn to live with fire.”

In response to the prevailing circumstances, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul called the worsening air quality “an emergency crisis.” However, it is more precise to view the recurring wildfires in North America as the true crisis that demands prompt action from the public.

UNDERLYING CAUSE BEHIND THE WILDFIRES

Despite the collective efforts of domestic and international firefighters, the wildfires continued to spread unabated and surged towards an increasingly uncontrollable state.

Firefighters from across Canada were mobilized to combat the fires, while international firefighters, from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and France, rushed to Canada to rescue. According to CTV News, as of Thursday, there are nearly 1,000 international firefighters actively involved in rescue operations.

While natural factors like lightning and thunder caused a large majority of wildfires, human factors, including unattended campfires, discarded cigarette butts and arson, contribute to the others.

However, it should be emphasized that the factors mentioned above are only the direct triggers of wildfires. The underlying cause behind the ravaging infernos is, in fact, climate change.

Mohammadreza Alizadeh, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal, said the fires are a “really clear sign of climate change.” In recent years, Canada has experienced prolonged periods of drought and high temperatures.

According to the Canada Drought Monitor, all 10 provinces are now under abnormal dryness, moderate or severe drought. The dry and highly flammable conditions in the forests made it easier for the fires to ignite and spread rapidly, making it more challenging for containment efforts. And the shifts in wind directions and precipitation patterns also increased the difficulty.

Describing the current situation as “a wake-up call,” Salome Sane, a climate campaigner at Greenpeace Canada stressed that the Canadian government has to take climate change seriously.

Aerial photo taken on May 31, 2023 shows wildfires in Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, Canada. (Nova Scotia Government/Handout via Xinhua)

In addition, climate change and the increasing frequency of wildfires seem to form a vicious cycle. Wildfires make ecosystems more fragile, creating conditions that are prone to further wildfires. At the same time, the massive smoke and greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires exacerbate climate change.

Breaking this cycle requires addressing both the causes and consequences of climate change, implementing effective wildfire management strategies, and promoting sustainable practices to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate.

As highlighted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “multiple studies have found that climate change has already led to an increase in wildfire season length, wildfire frequency, and burned area.” Therefore, proactive measures should be taken immediately to address the issue.

CONCRETE ACTIONS MUCH NEEDED

To effectively combat wildfires, it is often emphasized that individuals and communities should prioritize fire prevention and adopt responsible fire practices, including but not limited to, increasing awareness of fire prevention measures, educating the public on the proper use of fire outdoors, and implementing regular wild patrols to detect and control fires at the earliest possible stage.

While Canada and the United States indeed have strengthened regulatory measures for wildfires and imposed stricter penalties for human-caused wildfires, it is more important to pay more attention to climate change.

As June 7 marked Canada’s Clean Air Day, Steven Guilbeault, the country’s minister of Environment and Climate Change tweeted “The ongoing wildfires remind us that carbon pollution carries a cost on our society, as it accelerates climate change.”

By the end of the century, climate change could double the acreage burned by wildfires each year, which could take a heavy toll on human safety, ecosystems and air quality, according to Canada’s natural resources agency.

A firefighting plane flies above wildfires in Shellburne County, Nova Scotia, Canada, on May 31, 2023. (Nova Scotia Government/Handout via Xinhua)

The current emergency situation has sounded the alarm for the residents of the east coast of the United States, making them acutely aware of the fear that residents of the western region previously experienced in the face of rampant wildfires and the sense of urgency to deal with climate change.

“If U.S. President (Joe) Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the UN Climate Conference leaders need a reminder to take bold action on climate, the out-of-control Canadian wildfires and consequent smoke pollution should be all they need,” said Allie Rosenbluth, U.S. Program co-manager at the advocacy group Oil Change International.

But mere calls for attention are far from sufficient. Addressing the wildfire crisis requires concrete actions rather than hollow slogans. Furthermore, it should not be seen as the sole responsibility and obligation of a few countries; it requires global solidarity.

“This is no time for finger-pointing. The blame game is a recipe for mutually assured destruction,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stressed at the 27th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP27) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Otherwise, we will inevitably face the bitter consequences of climate change, for example, devastating wildfires and suffocating smog.

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