Canada’s wildfire season has started early and is already breaking records, with toxic smoke drifting south into the United States and numerous air quality alerts in place.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
If you live in the Northeastern United States, you probably woke up today to foggy skies. It’s because of the wildfires burning across eastern Canada, including about 150 fires in Quebec alone. Journalist Emma Jacobs joins me from Montreal. Hi.
EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Hi.
KELY: Hi. So tell me, how bad are the fires right now in Canada? What is their impact there?
JACOBS: That’s bad. Like the United States, Canadians woke up to hazy orange skies in major cities like Ottawa and Toronto. Here in Montreal, we have been smelling the fires for several days, when in fact, the images of New York seem worse at the moment. Many people had to be evacuated from their homes – in Quebec alone, about 15,000. Some of these evacuees live in fairly remote areas. Police came out onto the roads along the evacuation routes with canisters of gasoline in case the evacuees ran out on the way. The province does not have the resources to fight all the fires that are burning right now. They can only fight about 40 at a time. And we have about 150, as you said. Responders have therefore focused their resources on protecting communities and infrastructure.
KELLY: And is more help on the way?
JACOBS: As French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted this week, reinforcements are coming. Currently, there are approximately 670 Quebec and Canadian soldiers on the ground. The head of the provincial government, Premier François Legault, said today that he hoped to receive more firefighters as reinforcements.
(SOUND EXCERPT FROM AN ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FRANCOIS LEGAULT: We hope to have more than 500 in the next few days from New Brunswick, France, the United States, Portugal, Spain and Mexico.
JACOBS: But the fires have been exceptionally severe across Canada this spring, so there’s a lot of demand for even the same equipment. Quebec had additional water bombers on loan from Newfoundland, but they had to be sent home because that province was dealing with its own forest fires.
KELLY: It looks really bad, and so early in the fire season. I want to ask, do we know what the role of climate change may be in these fires?
JACOBS: Climate change means hotter, drier conditions that can fuel more extreme fires. Many records were broken this spring. Quebec has already experienced the worst year in its history in terms of area burned, and it’s early. Projections show that fire danger remains high during the normal wildfire season for most of Canada. This is the rest of June, July and August. Another worrying aspect of this situation is that climate change is not only making these fires worse, but also contributing to climate change.
JACOBS: Mike Flannigan is a researcher at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia. He said Canada’s boreal forests are a huge carbon sink.
MIKE FLANNIGAN: It’s fast or legacy carbon that’s built up since the last Ice Age. This fire can (ph)- go through and can put that carbon back into the atmosphere in one big explosion, which will fuel the warming. So it’s a kind of positive feedback, a cascading effect that can come into play.
JACOBS: He told me that people can play a role in helping the situation. About 50% of forest fires in Canada are caused by humans. He also says firefighting resources should be deployed more strategically to prevent the small percentage of truly massive fires that are burning most of the region.
KELLY: That’s journalist Emma Jacobs in Montreal.
NPR transcripts are created in peak time by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative recording of NPR’s programming is the audio recording.
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