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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    'Unprecedented' Canadian fires intensified by record heat, climate change

    In this aerial image, an aircraft, center, flies near a wildfire burning near Barrington Lake in Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. (Communications Nova Scotia/The Canadian Press via AP)

    It's already a wildfire season for the record books in Canada, with the blistering heat of summer and howling winds of fall still ahead. About 200 wildfires are currently burning across the country, and more than half are out of control. Major fires were ongoing in more than half the nation's provinces as of Friday.

    The rash of blazes, intensified by record heat in many areas, is an ominous sign of the ill effects of climate change, which are not confined to Canada. Smoke continues to pour into the Lower 48 states, compromising air quality and showing climate change's effects know no borders, even as the United States has seen a tame fire season by comparison.

    During May alone, Canada saw greater than 6.5 million acres burn, compared to an average of about 370,000 acres during the month.

    "These conditions this early in the season are unprecedented, and of course they are deeply concerning to all Canadians," Bill Blair, Canada's minister of emergency preparedness, told reporters Thursday, according to Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

    Now, a new round of intense heat is swelling westward across the country, unwelcome news for many areas where fires remain uncontained.

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    Charred lands from coast to coast

    "Canadians from coast to coast to coast have felt the impact of intense wildfires. These fires threaten our communities, livelihoods and our environment," said Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada's minister of natural resources, in a statement Thursday.

    Over Atlantic Canada, several major fires continue to burn in Nova Scotia. The largest, the Barrington Lake Fire in the province's coastal south, has burned more than 50,000 acres, becoming Nova Scotia's largest blaze on record. Teams from as far away as Bozeman, Mont., have joined firefighting efforts.

    Canada's largest wildfires remain focused in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where the Rockies meet the prairies. The region has been under drought conditions for much of the year and has seen very warm temperatures recently, including a record-breaking May in many spots.

    Both provinces have seen more than 2.5 million acres burn so far this year.

    The European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service, which tracks fire activity, wrote Thursday that emissions into the atmosphere from the fires were near the highest on record in Canada during May, and record-setting in British Colombia, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories and Nova Scotia.

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    Repeated rounds of record heat

    Pulse after pulse of record heat has helped fuel the extreme fire situation.

    Heat spread across Nova Scotia again on Thursday, with temperatures reaching 91 degrees in Halifax, more than 18 degrees above average. Record highs were also observed in many eastern cities, including Ottawa at 95 degrees, Montreal at 94 degrees and Toronto at 88 degrees.

    Some of this heat bled into the northern United States where numerous records were set. Burlington, Vt., reached a simmering 96 degrees, crushing its previous June 1 record of 90 while Fargo, N.D., hit a record-tying 97. Dozens of additional record highs could be set Friday and Saturday in the Great Lakes and Northeast.

    Over the coming days, the most extreme temperatures in Canada are expected to slowly move westward, first scorching Ontario and adjacent areas Friday before shifting into the prairies over the weekend.

    Migrating pulses of heat have affected much of Canada and parts of the northern United States throughout the spring. In the western half of Canada, Calgary, Edmonton, Yellowknife and Churchill, among other locations, posted their warmest May on record. These spots all ranged from 9 to 12 degrees above average.

    The predicted weather pattern ahead offers little relief. Record and near-record warmth are expected to focus over the western half of Canada and the Pacific Northwest into next week and perhaps longer.

    "Current projections indicate that this may continue to be a challenging summer for wildfires in parts of the country," the Government of Canada wrote in a statement Thursday. "Forecasts for warm, dry weather indicate the potential for increased fire activity."

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    The role of climate change

    Persistent and often extreme warmth in the high latitudes is among the clearest signals of climate change. The Arctic and its surroundings have been found to be warming much faster than most of the planet.

    Stagnant zones of high pressure, which bring prolonged periods of sunny, hot conditions, have been numerous in recent years and have again been the prevailing weather feature in 2023. An expansive zone of high pressure anchored around the Hudson Bay has frequently migrated west and east for much of this year and particularly since the spring.

    These high-pressure zones, which climate change intensifies, not only boost temperatures and fuel fires but also strengthen drought conditions conducive to fires by drying out the land surface.

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