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Canada’s wildfire season is off to a ferocious start

Crystal McAteer has watched ferocious wildfires chew through her home province of Alberta through the years, so she wasn't surprised when flames arrived on her doorstep.

Still, McAteer, the mayor of High Level, Alberta, a town of roughly 3,200 some 460 miles north of Edmonton, had never seen anything like the Chuckegg Creek Fire.

An out-of-control blaze nearly the size of Rhode Island - 50 percent larger than last year's record-breaking Mendocino Complex Fire in California - it has jumped rivers with ease, blackened the rain with soot and colored sunsets as far away as Britain.

"When it took off, it had such a force," McAteer said, the fire having bypassed her town last month but still raging. "It was like a beast."

Wildfire season in Canada - at least as destructive as in the United States - is off to a ferocious start. Eighty-seven fires were burning in seven provinces and two territories Monday, forcing 4,415 people from their homes.

Satellite imagery of Central Canada wildfire smoke on May 30, 2019 (NASA)

As the Canadian north grows warmer and drier for longer periods, the destruction is expected to get worse. Wildfires are now scorching more than 6 million acres of land here per year. That’s twice what they burned in the 1970s - and it’s projected to double again by the end of the century.

"It's become our new reality," said Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland science at the University of Alberta. "I don't like to say 'normal,' because that sounds like a plateau, and we're on a trajectory where we'll get more and more fire."

Massive wildfires have become common in Alberta during spring, said Mike Wotton, a research scientist with Natural Resources Canada. There's a window - after the snow melts but before vegetation grows - when there can be plenty of dry material to fuel fire.

More broadly, analysts say, intense wildfire activity is increasing, and fire seasons are getting longer. They say climate change is at least partly to blame.

Environment and Climate Change Canada, a government agency, reported this year that Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and much of it is "effectively irreversible."

Climate change will make some parts of Canada hotter, drier and more prone to lightning, scientists say. It will melt snow pack faster and dry out fuels such as nettles, grasses and leaves.

It also acts as a threat multiplier for other drivers of shifting wildfire activity. Climate change has helped spread a mountain pine beetle epidemic, which has weakened trees across nearly 47 million acres of forest in Canada, making them more susceptible to blazes. (The beetle cannot survive cold winters.)

More people are being affected by wildfires than in the past because more and more of them are living and working in the wildland-urban interface - areas where human development meets or is interspersed with fire-prone forests.

Humans, too, affect ecosystems. In Canada, slightly more than half of all wildfires each year are started by people.

"People are choosing to move into those places because they're beautiful and the weather is great, but people are naive about the conditions in which they're choosing to live," said Lori Daniels, a professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia.

"Californians are asking us to learn from their mistakes, and I'm not sure that we're doing that very well."

In some parts of Canada, fire management policies that once called for all naturally occurring fires to be quickly extinguished are also playing a role. Forest ecosystems rely on periodic fire for overall health and regeneration.

Fires have "a protective effect," said Jen Beverly, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta.

"If you have a fire in an area, and then 20 years later you have a fire nearby, we're seeing lots of examples where the new fire will not spread into the area that burned previously," she said. "It's fuel-limited by the previous fire."

Those fire suppression policies were not particularly prevalent in Canada's vast boreal forest, which makes up roughly three-quarters of all forested area in the country. But they were implemented in some parts of southern British Columbia, especially where commitments were made to manage for timber. That has had unintended consequences, Daniels said, leaving behind tons of combustible material that can fuel blazes.

Devastating wildfires loom large in the Canadian psyche.

In 2016, a massive wildfire raged through Fort McMurray, Alberta, forcing the entire population - close to 90,000 people - to evacuate. Cars jammed the sole road out of the city as embers rained down, in Canada's costliest insured disaster.

Five years earlier, a wildfire in Slave Lake, Alberta, incinerated whole neighborhoods, destroying 400 homes and businesses.

In 2003, wind and dry conditions fueled wildfires in Kelowna, British Columbia, driving some 20,000 people from their homes.

Even people who don't live in the immediate vicinity of major fires are waking up to their massive impact.

Smoke from the Chuckegg Creek and other fires in Alberta has drifted into U.S. states and even traveled across the Atlantic Ocean. In Edmonton, it has turned the sky dark sepia and prompted air quality warnings.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made combating climate change a key priority for his government. But his efforts, including a carbon tax that went into effect this year, have drawn political opposition.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was set last month to celebrate his government's repeal of the carbon tax. But with Edmonton blanketed in wildfire smoke, the festivities were canceled so he could attend an emergency fire briefing.

The federal government set aside more than $411 million in its 2019 budget for improving Canada's ability to prepare for, respond to and adapt to climate-change-related natural disasters such as wildfires.

“We have to learn to live with fire,” Flannigan said. “People don’t like to hear this, but that’s the reality. Fire is here to stay.”

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