Updated May 15, 2024 - Science

Thousands flee Canada fires as smoke hits U.S. air quality

Smoke rises from a wildfire in western Canada on Tuesday. Photo: Cheyenne Berreault/Anadolu via Getty Images

Officials in western Canada warned of "volatile wildfire activity," as dozens of blazes burn in dry conditions across the country, forcing thousands to evacuate and triggering air quality alerts in several U.S. states this week.

By the numbers: Most of the 134 blazes burning in the first major wildfires since Canada's record season that finally abated in October were in British Columbia (47) and Alberta (45) as of Tuesday evening, per the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

  • The CIFFC listed 43 of these fires as "out of control" — among them the Parker Lake fire in northern British Columbia, which has burned over 20,000 acres since it began on Friday.

Threat level: B.C. Wildfire Service fire officials said Tuesday the Parker Lake fire was within 1.5 miles of Fort Nelson, but unexpected calmer winds kept the wildfire away from the town where evacuation orders had already been issued, per the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

  • A lull in fire behavior and favorable weather conditions around Fort Nelson should help firefighters battle the blaze, the officials added.
  • Fires across Canada impacted air quality early Wednesday in eight U.S. states: the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In Alberta, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo declared a State of Local Emergency and issued an evacuation order for some 6,000 residents in the Fort McMurray area on Tuesday due to "an out-of-control" wildfire.

  • Provincial capital the City of Edmonton announced Tuesday it would open a center providing support for evacuees from that fire, known as MWF017, which had burned across nearly 52,000 acres as of Tuesday night.

State of play: Wood Buffalo regional fire chief Jody Butz acknowledged Tuesday Fort McMurray residents' concerns that the blaze threatening the community was a reminder of the massive wildfire that destroyed some 2,400 homes when it struck Canada's oil sands capital in 2016, but he said conditions were not as severe, per CBC.

In British Columbia, B.C. emergency management minister Bowinn Ma said at a Monday briefing that firefighters were facing "extremely challenging conditions" in the north of the province and more evacuation orders were issued in this region that day.

  • Authorities issued evacuation orders for other British Columbia communities over the weekend.
  • "The fuels are as dry as we have ever seen," said Cliff Chapman, B.C. Wildfire Service director of wildfire operations, at a briefing on the Parker Lake fire on Sunday.
  • Although conditions had since improved, B.C. Wildfire Service fire behaviour specialist Ben Boghean said at a Tuesday evening briefing that this could change if the area was hit by strong northerly winds and continuous dry conditions.

Context: Canadian officials have said the country may face another highly active wildfire season from higher-than-normal temperatures and extensive drought.

  • About half of Canada is in drought, with B.C. and Alberta the driest provinces, according to the North America Drought Monitor.
  • Many of the wildfires currently burning are holdover or "zombie" fires, which were never fully extinguished after last year's record season.
  • Such fires are unique to the boreal forest, where fire activity is increasing as the climate changes.

Between the lines: Studies show that climate change is leading to more instances of critical fire weather, with wildfires becoming more frequent, and exacerbating drought conditions make such extreme weather events more likely.

What to expect: "Drought conditions are expected to persist in high-risk regions in May, including the southern regions of the prairie and western provinces," per a Canadian government statement Friday.

Flashback: Canada's wildfires bring skyrocketing carbon emissions

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout.

Go deeper