Fire Seasons are Changing

The Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA) has called up its wildfire crews to start training and preparing for what is expected to be another busy fire season. On April 8th, the SPSA announced an early call-up this year after a drier-than-normal winter. Type 1 Wildfire Crews began training in March and will be ready to respond to fires this week SPSA president Marlo Pritchard announced. Spring fires are primarily caused by human actions, and it is important that individuals act responsibly. Fire bans have been enacted in the Rural Municipalities of Hoodoo, Bayne, and Fish Creek, as well as on One Arrow First Nation. “I know that people think that wildfire season is the middle of summer, but a large number of fires are started in the spring,” Steve Roberts, SPSA vice-president of operations told reporters on April 8th. “Some of those, like last year, become very large.”

The 2023 wildfire season was one of the busiest in decades. With nearly 500 wildfires reported, it was well over the five-year average of 378. SPSA statistics show 2,703 people were evacuated due to wildfires in 2023. Roughly 1.9 million hectares burned during the season.

SPSA has 220 Type 1 firefighters, consisting of trained and experienced staff who typically perform initial and sustained attacks on wildland fires. Type 1 firefighters also function as crew leaders and may also act as supervisors of Type 2 and 3 crews on sustained action fires. Type 2 crews are primarily used on sustained action fires but may also assist in the initial response to new wildfires and the 410 Type 2 firefighters in the SPSA roster are contracted through formal agreements with First Nations organizations and northern communities. Should the need arise, Type 3 firefighters, who are qualified firefighters hired on an emergency basis, are brought in to assist. It is not possible to predict what firefighters will face this year when it comes to the number of fires, the size of those fires, or what will be their primary cause, but Roberts says the resources needed will 100 percent be determined by a combination of factors including weather, the number of fires, and the size and location of those fires.

Canada-wide, 2023 was a record-breaking fire year. The number of active wildfires placed an overwhelming demand on resources throughout most of the 2023 fire season, over 5,500 individuals from 12 countries and the European Union provided assistance, and the collective fire-fighting effort included contract firefighting crews, structural firefighters from municipal and local governments, individuals who volunteered, and the Canadian Armed Forces that were deployed to aid in firefighting efforts in multiple provinces.

In 2023, there were many more large fires in Canada (834) than in previous years (an average of 320 for 1986–2022). The 2023 fire season started with near-normal levels of soil moisture following snowmelt in the eastern provinces, but above-normal temperatures and rapid drying caused what could be described as a ‘flash drought’, an emerging phenomenon that is only beginning to be understood. A flash drought is characterized by unusually rapid drying that is set in motion by lower-than-normal precipitation that is accompanied by abnormally high temperatures, winds, and solar intensity. (Christian, et al, Global projections of flash drought show increased risk in warming climate, It was remarkable due to coast-to-coast fire activity lasting seven months from late April to late October, following an early snowmelt and record-breaking heat, resulting in a record-breaking total burned area of approximately 15 Mha, corresponding to around 4% of Canada's forest area and more than seven times the historic national average.

The fire activity in 2023 was surprisingly relentless in that except for a handful of days, many large wildfires burned without respite from late April to early October, and several regions underwent two or more significant surges in fire activity. Uncommon fire behavior, including a pyro-tornado in British Columbia (, and a record number of pyrocumulonimbus events were observed due to the frequency and intensity of the extreme weather and fire intensity. As a result, large areas of less-flammable vegetation, such as broadleaf-dominated forests and recently burned stands, were affected by wildfires.

The fire season, as most can remember, abruptly began in mid-April with an evacuation in southern British Columbia. Shortly afterward, hundreds of mainly human-caused wildfires began in Alberta in early May. In late May, fast-spreading wildfires on the eastern coast—an area where large wildfires are relatively rare—led to the evacuation of thousands of people from several communities in Nova Scotia and the destruction of hundreds of buildings outside of Halifax and in southern Nova Scotia. In early June, multiple convective cells with associated lightning ignited a string of fires across south-central Quebec, followed by another series of wildfires three weeks later that ignited to the north of the initial ones. In midsummer, large wildfires burning in the Northwest Territories caused extensive structural losses and the evacuation of about 70% of the population, including the territorial capital city of Yellowknife. In mid-August, wildfires across British Columbia also burned close to communities, destroying hundreds of structures in south-central British Columbia. Embers transported over 3 km across Okanagan Lake started spot fires that threatened the city of Kelowna. As a testament to the widespread and sustained nature of the 2023 wildfire activity, in September, the usually quiet time at the end of fire season, the 22nd was the largest single-day area burned in Canada (~440,000 ha) since satellite records began.

Wildfires are changing and the experiences of 2023, will need to be the drivers behind fire management strategy. All stakeholders from industry to private citizens will need to be part of creating more fire-resilient environments as climate change will continue to impact fire activity in the future.

Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wakaw Recorder