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Unwieldy wildfires scorch Canada and threaten a community scarred by past catastrophe


By Elizabeth Wolfe, Joe Sutton, Sharif Paget, Mary Gilbert and Eric Zerkel, CNN

(CNN) — Improving winds and a storm moving into western Canada are providing a temporary boost to firefighters battling massive wildfires, but the danger remains heightened as they burn close to three communities.

Drought-starved vegetation and days of gusty winds have fueled more than 100 wildfires tearing across Canada that have choked the air with smoke and forced thousands to evacuate since the weekend.

But weather conditions took a turn midweek and are providing some help for firefighters working to gain the upper hand on the flames.

Winds have died down in some areas and shifted in others, pushing flames away from Alberta’s Fort McMurray, a city still haunted by a catastrophic 2016 fire dubbed “The Beast.”

A large, slow-moving storm will also track through western and central Canada from midweek into the weekend. Cooler air from the storm will flow across fire-torn provinces while relative humidity levels rise and chances for rain increase.

While the assist from Mother Nature will not last indefinitely, any potential containment is welcome news for the thousands of people whose homes and businesses are at risk.

Roads out of Fort McMurray were crammed with evacuating cars Tuesday as an out-of-control 51,000-acre wildfire crept toward the city’s edge. The approaching flames conjured up terrifying memories for residents who lived through the 2016 fires, which forced 90,000 people to evacuate and wrought billions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses.

Evacuation orders were issued for the city’s neighborhoods of Prairie Creek, Beacon Hill, Abasand and Grayling Terrace on Tuesday. The rest of the city and several surrounding suburbs are on alert to evacuate at a moment’s notice.

Roughly 6,600 people in Alberta had evacuated as of Wednesday, local officials said during a Wednesday news conference. Residents can expect to be away from their homes until at least May 21, the regional municipality said in a news release.

A veil of thick smoke made it difficult for firefighters to see as they battled “extreme fire behavior,” Tuesday Alberta Wildfire Information Officer Josee St-Onge said. Safety concerns have prompted some firefighters to be removed from the front lines.

Officials sought to assuage the concerns of residents who vividly recall the 2016 fires, which tore through more than 1.4 million acres and destroyed about 2,400 homes and businesses – the most expensive natural disaster in Canada’s history.

“I want to recognize the anxiety that this brings, certainly to those residents that were here in 2016, and to those where this is their first experience and have heard the stories,” said Regional Fire Chief Jody Butz. “We are confident that we have the resources to defend these areas, but we need people out of harm’s way.”

St-Onge said Wednesday less than 1 millimeter of rain fell on the fire overnight. “Active fire behavior is expected today but should be less than yesterday, thanks to cooler temperatures and weaker winds,” she said, adding firefighters would begin establishing a containment line. Currently, 117 firefighters and 21 helicopters have been assigned to the firefight, according to St-Onge.

But despite the weather improvements, St-Onge warned there was “a lot of work to be done to contain this fire and we are still expecting high fire activity today.”

The country’s wildfire season is off to a troubling pace as new fires ignite each day and dormant so-called “zombie” fires reanimate. The 2024 fire season isn’t yet on par with last year’s record-shattering season but with wildfire behavior worsening in a warming world it’s no wonder Canadian fire officials are warning of an “explosive” season that may rival last year.

Hazardous smoke from the blazes has also been wafting into the US and reducing air quality.

Degraded air quality levels were in place Wednesday from the Dakotas into Oklahoma. The central US will remain the focal point for Canadian smoke through at least midweek, before it is pushed from the area by an incoming storm system.

‘It’s a war zone’

Multiple blazes exploded in size across several provinces early this week, forcing thousands of Canadians to flee their homes with children, pets and bags stuffed with essentials and cherished possessions in tow.

“This is a very difficult time for people who have been asked to leave behind their home, their belongings and their community without the certainty of what will remain when they return,” Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew said in a Tuesday statement.

Manitoba first responders are tackling one of the largest wildfires in Canada, which has consumed at least 78,000 acres and was within a mile of the Cranberry Portage community as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the province’s media release. More than 500 residents had been evacuated from the area as several neighborhoods were ordered to leave.

In British Columbia, more favorable weather conditions helped slow the advance of the northeastern Parker Lake Fire toward the town of Fort Nelson. At least 4,800 people in the area are under evacuation orders, including the Fort Nelson First Nation.

Rick Seidel, the owner of a local construction and trucking company, told CNN’s Canadian news partner CBC he stayed back to help fight the flames.

“We’ve had all our equipment ready and all our water trucks were loaded. When the call came we jumped into action,” Seidel told CBC on Monday.

“It’s really bad. It’s a war zone right now,” Seidel said.

Climate change fuels worsening wildfires

Gusty winds are driving ongoing fires in Canada, but the seeds of fire activity were sown over the winter and in past years as the world continues to warm because of human-driven climate change.

“This region has experienced multiple years of drought, with a below normal snowpack this past winter,” said Ben Boghean, fire behavior specialist for the BC Wildfire Service. “As a result of this, our forests in the Fort Nelson zone are very receptive to new fire ignitions and rapid rates of spread.”

Declining snow, increasing temperatures and worsening droughts are all hallmarks of climate change and are projected to keep driving larger and more intense fires across Canada, according to Environment Canada.

Last year was Canada’s most devastating fire season on record, including in British Columbia, where fires burned through hundreds of homes and an area the size of Maryland, according to the BC Wildfire Service.

There are more than 130 fires burning across Canada, 42 of which are considered out of control, according to the Canadian Interagency Fire Centre.

Some of the blazes are so-called “holdover fires” also known colloquially as “zombie fires,” the smoldering remains of last season’s epic blazes, burning deep in the ground throughout the winter and reigniting when exposed to warmer temperatures in the spring.

“In the past, the winter conditions are what put out a lot of holdover fires,” said Bowinn Ma, British Columbia’s minister of emergency management and climate readiness. “In this case, what we’ve seen is that due to higher temperatures and persistent drought through the last year, many of these holdover fires were not put out like they normally are.”

CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford contributed to this report.

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Article Topic Follows: cnn-weather/environment

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