Wind turbines are framed by the sun setting in a red (smoke filled) sky.

The Quadra Project: Canada’s Forest Fires of 2023

Forest fires in British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Yukon and elsewhere in Canada reached record levels in the summer of 2023. They also coincided, for the months of June, July, August and September, with the highest recorded temperatures since the Eemian Interglacial Period 120,000 years ago. So 2023 is likely to become the hottest year ever recorded since we humans have existed as an identifiable species.

Granted, this combination of fires and high global temperatures occurred during the first summer of this El Niño cycle, a periodic ocean-generated warming cycle that raises global average temperatures by about 0.2°C. However, we have been living comfortably with El Niño for centuries. The problem is not El Niño, but the global temperature rise caused by carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, the consequence of our greenhouse gas emissions primarily from burning fossil fuels. Despite 30 years of efforts to reduce these emissions, they continue to rise—to about 37.8 billion metric tonnes in 2022, a 0.9% increase over 2021.

The extensive fires in British Columbia and Canada are not yet fully extinguished, and some may burn throughout the winter. People who were immediately affected by the flames have been traumatized by the enormity of this environmental disaster. Smoke blanketed many Canadian and American cities, including Toronto, Ottawa, Boston and New York, threatening the health of millions. But many more are yet to fully experience the significance of these fires.

This year, BC lost 28,500 kmor 2,850,000 ha to forest fires, more than double the previous record of 13,500 km2 or 1,350,000 ha in the fire season of 2018. The cost to the BC government to fight the 2023 fires was about $1 billion, money that could have been spent on hospitals, schools, housing and all the amenities needed to benefit its citizens.

Canada, so far, has lost about 160,000 km2 or 16,000,000 ha of forests to fires during the summer of 2023. As a big country, Canada has a lot of forests and—except for the human and species tragedies—may arguably recover. However, the consequences of these fires will have global impacts that will not be immediately evident.

Canada’s 2023 fires produced huge amounts of carbon dioxide, estimates that range from 1.7 to 2.0 billion tonnes. Since CO2, is the gas that is mostly responsible for global warming, the ultimate effect of these fires is a positive feedback dynamic—the warming causes the fires, the fires produce additional CO2, and the warming from the CO2 contributes to more fires, exactly the circumstance that could escalate to an out-of-control situation.

The enormity of the emissions from Canada’s 2023 forest fires don’t become clear until they are compared to other sources. Without counting fires, Canada’s total CO2 emissions in 2021 were 563 million tonnes, about one-third of the carbon dioxide emitted from its 2023 fires. For other comparisons that underscore the global impact of these forest fires, Germany’s total emissions for 2021 were 665 million tonnes, France’s 302, the United Kingdom’s 335, Japan’s 1,064 and Russia’s 1,942. (These totals will vary slightly depending on the criteria used for calculating them.) The rough comparisons suggest that Canada’s forest fires emitted at least as much carbon dioxide as Japan’s entire annual production, and perhaps as much as Russia’s.

This is worrisome. Our inclination when the summer is over is to relax and revert to our normal behaviour. Having survived the heat and fires, we pick up the charred pieces that remain, reassemble the wreckage into some semblance of comfort, and carry on as before. But the carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for centuries, causing continual heating, increasing ocean acidification, exacerbating weather extremes, accelerating species extinction, hastening sea level rise, impairing food production, and, of course, causing more forests fires. Each disaster produces a new situation with consequences that are less predictable and less manageable than the preceding one. In a climate of increasing instability, our comfort and security become more difficult to manage. As we step on the slippery slope to accelerating climate change, we find it increasingly difficult to maintain our footing and our balance.

Besides Canada, fires ravaged many areas of Europe in the summer of 2023. Those adjoining the Mediterranean were particularly hard hit, emitting an estimated 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, these fires showed a preference for forested and ecological areas protected for their biodiversity.

Fires are now more than just fires. They are signals that our environmental security is being lost, hectare by hectare and square kilometre by square kilometre. Burning forests, bushland, homes, villages and even towns are warnings that a predictable climate that once seemed so generous and benign is now being convulsed by a fever. Forest fires have become a significant contributor to atmospheric carbon dioxide, and a hotter more combustable planet. And summers, which were once a time for eager holidays and carefree living, have been transformed into an ominous season tainted with threat and fear.

Ray Grigg for Sierra Quadra 

Top image credit: Smoking sunset in Halifax – Photo by Admitter via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED)