Wild fires in Canada, smoke in America

With hundreds of Canadian wildfires sending smoke across northern USA, many Americans are wondering how long the bad air quality will continue and whether Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government can do more to put out the flames.

Dustin Mueller, the US Forest Service Deputy Fire Chief, has been deployed thousands of miles from home to battle an out-of-control blaze in the wooded bogs and swampland of Alberta, Canada. He reports that in the dry moisture-hungry forests of northern California, a favourably-timed rainstorm would likely mean an end to the fire. In this marshy terrain, even a favourably-timed rain storm could do little to slow the flames. So, two days after being doused the flames roar back to life.

Canada is in the midst of a record-shattering fire season that has left more than 14 million acres charred and has stretched emergency resources to the limit, with months still to go before the season ends. The area burned by Canadian wildfires this year is 11 times the average for the same period over previous years.

In Canada, some blazes, especially those considered too difficult or dangerous to contain, are left to run their course. Even when communities are not threatened, firefighters in California are also tasked with protecting assets, which range from large stretches of private property to highly valuable timber forests.

A strong culture of fire suppression has defined USA strategies over the last century, leaving forests dangerously overgrown. Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem in the American west, where the tall trees have evolved to thrive with slow-burning flames that clear the undergrowth and renew the soil. The climate crisis has turned up the dial, producing a new kind of wildfire that burns hotter, faster and leaves little in its wake. While there has been a slow shift to bring healthy fires back to the forests, experts have criticised USA agencies for causing more devastation by not letting enough land burn.

Canadian crews also have different requirements when it comes to protective equipment and are not required to carry fire shelters: small aluminium foil-lined sacks that a firefighter can climb inside when there are no other options for escape. While the tool is considered an essential ‘last-resort’ protection by American agencies, Canadian strategies focus on ensuring firefighters are not put in situations where they might have to rely on the devices. The shelters are not always reliable, especially in the types of terrain where Canadian crews often fight fire.

“The overall goal is to save human life and that includes firefighters, not just the public,” said Dustan. Even though the 4.30 am sunrise and 11.30 pm sunset allowed for more daylight hours on the fire line, the American firefighters found they had to cut their typical shifts short. “We were used to operating in a 24-hour environment,” said Dustan, but he and his crew had to head out after a 12-hour mark in order to abide by Alberta rules, which mandate periods of rest to protect against stress and fatigue.

Robert Gray, a wildfire ecologist said that on-the-ground realities dictate the difference in strategies between the two countries and this has led to incorrect assumptions that Canadian crews take fewer risks. “The values shared between Canadian and American firefighters are the same: if a fire is threatening your community or critical infrastructure, they attack and defend,” he said. “In California, you see these structural fire crews battling wildfires. They are going to make a stand, come hell or high water, they are going to save this house,” said Robert. “You just do not get that in Canada. In the massive fires, they are just too hot – you cannot get close to it anyway. Instead, you stand off at large distances, build a big box and do burnout to contain it.”

There is also broad recognition by the international science community that an increase in catastrophic fire means an increase in carbon emissions, fuelling a vicious cycle of intensifying climate conditions.  Accordingly, crews across the world are often ready to battle blazes wherever they are burning.

Crews from ten different countries are currently fighting fire in Canada. While nation-to-nation agreements are most common, crews are not always deployed by countries; states and provinces have their own sets of agreements, especially among neighbours.

Today, on the Fourth of July, the smoke from the ferocious Canadian wildfires cast a sickly pall over much of the eastern USA, worsening the air quality for millions of people. The air was acrid, skylines looked orange and municipal officials told people to stay indoors. The National Weather Service does not expect things will get much better tomorrow. New York City has the worst air quality in the world due to the Canadian fires.

Some of the information used in this article has been extracted from Yahoo News.

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