What we can learn from Canada's record wildfire season as a new one approaches

New study examines unprecedented 2023 fires and what to expect in years ahead

Fire crews across much of Canada are already on high alert for the coming wildfire season, only months after the conclusion of the worst season on record.

Quebec's fire monitoring agency, SOPFEU, issued a warning for some parts of the province last week, the earliest in its history.

"It's going to get dry very quickly, so it's going to become very, very easy to start a fire," said Philippe Bergeron, a spokesperson for the agency based in Quebec City.

"We have an early spring that is coming, a mild end of this winter and the snow cover that is disappearing faster than usual."

Alberta also declared last month that its wildfire season had started, 10 days early, and B.C. issued a notice saying it was monitoring holdover fires from last year.

SPRING 2024: Get an in-depth look at the Spring Forecast, tips to plan for it, and much more!

The B.C. Wildfire Service has since announced a number of prescribed burns, in an attempt to reduce dried vegetation and protect communities against wildfires.

Content continues below

More than 100 fires are still burning in B.C. and Alberta after unusually dry conditions in both provinces.

The federal government recently set aside up to $285 million over five years to help communities better handle wildfires, and is also aiming to hire 1,000 more firefighters.

New research on an unprecedented year

The warnings about the upcoming season come as researchers take stock of last year's historic wildfires, and analyze what can be done differently.

Although the number of fires wasn't unusual compared to other years, their average size was far larger.

Approximately 15 million hectares burned, over seven times the historic national annual average.

"'Record-breaking' is almost a euphemism. I mean, it really shattered past records," said Marc-André Parisien, an Edmonton-based research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, part of Natural Resources Canada.

Content continues below

Last year's season "challenged what we thought we understood about wildland fire," he said.

Parisien said the precipitating factors included early snowmelt, drought conditions in Western Canada and a rapid transition to dry weather in Eastern Canada.

WATCH: Man charged with starting record-breaking Nova Scotia fire

He is among the authors of a new study, which has not yet been peer reviewed, called "Canada Under Fire – Drivers and Impacts of the Record-Breaking 2023 Wildfire Season."

The average temperature between May and October 2023 was 2.2 C warmer than the average between 1991 and 2020, the study found, "enabling sustained extreme fire weather conditions throughout the fire season."

SEE ALSO: In the N.W.T., an approaching wildfire season is fuelling anxiety

There was a high number of human-caused fires early in the season. Many of those, notably in Alberta, burned for months and forced communities to evacuate.

In all, residents in 200 communities, totalling 232,000 people, had to leave their homes, according to the study.

Content continues below

The Cree First Nation of Waswanipi, located roughly 600 kilometres northwest of Quebec City, was among the communities evacuated — twice.

"It was the first time that we had to evacuate for a forest fire in many, many years," said Rhonda Oblin Cooper, its deputy chief.

"We know what to do now. Unfortunately, that's the sad thing," she said. "We do know how to evacuate the most vulnerable populations of our community. We've had to do it twice."

'Fingerprints of climate change'

The study notes Canada has been warming at double the global rate, with the mean annual temperature rising by 1.7 C nationally since 1948. There were bigger increases at high latitudes and during winter and spring.

An earlier study, not yet peer reviewed, about Quebec's wildfire season concluded it was made more likely and more intense by human-caused climate change. Parisien said he is working on a similar, countrywide study.

"The 2023 fire season most definitely had the fingerprints of climate change on it," he said.

Content continues below

"Warmer, drier conditions are leading to much bigger fires, more intense fires," said Katrina Moser, chair of Western University's department of geography and environment.

"We are unfortunately seeing very similar conditions coming into the spring, so very warm temperatures again."

WATCH: Early wildfire season declared in Alberta, here's what that means

In many parts of Canada, unusually low snowpack levels and warm temperatures are cause for concern.

But whether the country is in store for another big wildfire season depends on what happens in the weeks to come, experts said.

"Fire's really ... a day-to-day kind of phenomenon, and a big rainfall can make a difference," Parisien said.

But in drought-stricken areas, "it's going to take you more than one good rainfall to basically make up for the moisture deficit that we've accumulated for years now."

Content continues below

Earlier response, and more resources needed

Another new Quebec-based analysis suggests improving fire monitoring near communities, along with adding to the fleet of water bomber planes and hiring more firefighters.

DON'T MISS: What recent snowstorms mean for the drought and wildfire risk in Western Canada

Last year, an "unprecedented" number of staff and resources was shared between provinces and from around the world, according to the Canada-wide study. In total, over 1,700 people within Canada and 5,500 people from 12 additional countries and the European Union assisted.

Christie Tucker, a spokesperson for Alberta Wildfire, said an earlier official start to the season has allowed her agency to hire sooner than usual, and get prepared.

The service is tracking overwintering fires, she said, and making sure people are aware of when and where they are allowed to set a fire.

"It means that we can give people advice on how to burn safely over the winter. One of the largest problems that we have is people burning on their property and that burn may smoulder under snow and then flare up again in the spring.

"We want to prepare for the worst, and that is why we're bringing in the staff on early."

Thumbnail image courtesy of Besnard Lake Lodge via CBC News.

This article, written by Benjamin Shingler, was originally published for CBC News, with files from Alison Northcott.