Canada is in the midst of its worst fire season ever. The interagency fire center has recorded 4,241 wildfires since the beginning of 2023. The fires have scorched over 27.1 million acres of land across Canada this year. Canada has also seen three brave hero’s put their lives on the line and die in the line of duty so far this fire season.
On July 13, 2023, 19-year-old Devyn Gale was struck and killed by a fallen tree while fighting a wildfire just outside of Revelstoke, B.C.. Three days later Adam Yeadon died after suffering injuries battling a fire 26 kilometres southeast of Fort Liard N.W.T.. Then four days later, a pilot, who’s yet to be named, died after his helicopter collided with the ground as he worked to deliver water to a fire in northern Alberta.
In lieu of the destructive fire season, Ian Sachs, a former fire operations technician with the Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, discussed some of the harsh realities wildfire fighters have to face day in and day out.
“The endurance physically of being up at 5:30, you’re up the line, you’re doing stuff, you’re not back in camp until nine o’clock and then you got to cook your own dinner and then you’re sleeping in a tent. Just being able to take that endurance, do it for your 14-day run, and then do it again and then do it again and do it again.”
“The smoke is a problem at times,” adds Sach. “You can usually get away from it, but sometimes you just can’t. Especially when there’s an inversion and it just drops everything down. You can’t get away from it.”
Sachs fought wildfires for 13 years before leaving the industry earlier this year. He said that there are many ups and downs, wins and losses when fighting wildfires. He’s been in numerous fires, battling big blazes in extreme danger to bring them back under control. He recalls when he lost a crew member in the eye of one fierce fire at Red Lake, Ont. — the incident remains an emotional moment.
“The guys that went up there and pushed on his chest, then carried him out. It wasn’t a trauma crazy scene. Fate, brutality. But it still hurts, you know. Those guys had to carry a body out of the bush. You feel it, and it hurts knowing that some young kid just died… but the nature of the job is that it’s dangerous.”
Impacts of the 2023 wildfire season
The 2023 wildfire season has been absolutely devastating and has left wreckage country-wide.
Dr, Felix Nwaishi who is an associate professor in Environmental Science at Mount Royal University has extensively researched earth and environmental science in his studies specifically following natural disturbances like wildfires. He says this season is one like he’s never seen.
“I think he’s an extraordinary one, it started early for us in Alberta, and it was the magnitude and the spread of the fire that was intense. It is not been this way before. Usually, over the years, what we see is that you have fires like this in different parts of the country, but this time, it’s all happening at the same time,” Nwaishi said.
Sachs was able to shed some light on the battles that wildfire fighters are facing and why this season has been so stressful across Canada.
“When you’re short, so many crews, and when he can’t get any more helicopters, because Alberta or Quebec has them all, it gets busy, Sachs said.
“When you’re losing fires that you shouldn’t have lost and you gotta get personnel on them, but you don’t have the personnel, that has actually made this season from what I’ve seen, busy.”
Health effects of forest fire smoke and pollutants
While nothing can compare to the people in the field fighting these fires, smoke has impacted the daily lives of people who are away from the forest.
On Sunday, May 21 Alberta experienced the worst air quality in the world according to data tracked by the World Air Quality Index.
The smoke made all the headlines across Canada during the months of May and June, but Dr. Nwaishi says there was potentially much more going on than just basic fire smoke.
“In the atmosphere, we see the release of toxic constant substances and compounds to the atmosphere which can impact human health. One of the major concerns with fire is that on some of the sites that have been burned are actually sites that have legacies of industrial pollutants,” Nwaishi said.
“So there are areas that where there have been metals or other toxic chemicals that have been stored below ground so what happens is that as fire burns down through the depth, it releases these substances, heavy metals and it’s basically what you have in some of the constituents of the smoke.”
Nwaishi also touched upon how the volatility of this fire season has impacted the environment and ecosystems in Alberta.
“Fire helps to renew the (boreal) forest when they get old. However, what we’re seeing is that the reoccurrence frequency of the fire is becoming very short, and the intervals for reoccurrence.
“Even sites that have been burned previously wouldn’t have sufficient time to recover or go to what we call secondary succession before another fire hits the same ecosystem. So when fire happens, the ecosystem we have loss of biomass, so the trees, wildlife that use these ecosystems as their habitat will be lost, and then the residue from the fire interacts with other threads of the environment. And so the hydrosphere, which is water, will be polluted because some of the ash will be washed into freshwater systems.”
Helping Albertans recover from wildfires
Wildfires in May and June alone burned more than 1.4 million hectares and resulted in approximately 38,000 Albertans being evacuated from their homes.
The Alberta government has stepped in for those in need by launching a 175 million Disaster Recovery Program, that intends to help Alberta communities that have been affected by the wildfires.
“This year’s wildfire season has had an early and profound impact on Alberta communities, and our hearts go out to all those affected. Our government stands ready and willing to help Alberta communities. We are committed to supporting local authorities and will use the Disaster Recovery Program to provide financial assistance for the extraordinary costs to respond to the wildfires,” Premier Danielle Smith said via press release.
Local authorities that have suffered from the impacts of the 2023 wildfire season can apply for costs incurred responding to the wildfires and repairing related damage.
The funds from the Disaster Recovery Program can go to things such as firefighter costs, food, transport and mutual aid costs for reception centre accommodation, infrastructure damage and structural protection costs.
Mike Ellis, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Services, says he is grateful for the Disaster Recovery Program and the good it can do.
“We are grateful for the resiliency shown by families, individuals, the firefighters and all Albertans throughout the ongoing wildfires. This new funding will be critical in helping these impacted communities get back to where they were before this province-wide disaster,” Ellis said via press release.
For more information on the Disaster Recovery Program visit Alberta.ca.