Canada is officially in the middle of its worst wildfire season on record as fires continue to burn out of control across the country with little relief in sight, according to AccuWeather forecasters.
Thick smoke flowing south from the wildfires also continues to dim the sun in portions of the northern United States, where air quality will be poor in spots for at least several more days. Impacts have also arrived in Western Europe, where smoke was observed and visible on satellite imagery.
According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC), which maintains records on the number of fires and the amount of land burned in the country, a new record for acres burned was established on Saturday, June 24. As of Monday, over 19 million acres of land have burned so far this year. This eclipses the previous record of 17,559,303 acres from 1995 (records have been maintained for the country by CIFFC since 1983).
It has been a rapid climb to the record, with an average of 330,000 new acres of land burned daily across the country since May 1. Overall, Quebec is the province with the most land burned so far this season, with over 6.3 million acres, according to CIFFC.
CIFFC data as of Tuesday morning also indicated that there were 492 active fires across the country, and a total of nearly 3,000 have burned since the beginning of the year. Officials were responding to 89 fires in Alberta, the most of any province in the country, with Quebec not far behind at 81.
“When the 2023 wildfire season is over, it will obliterate all other years in terms of area burned, since we still have July, August, September and October to go,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist and Canada Weather Expert Brett Anderson.
CIFFC also maintains data about how fires in the country are started. According to the agency’s National Fire Situation Report, of the 53 new fires started on Monday, 39 were started by natural sources (primarily lightning), eight were caused by humans and six more were started by an unknown source.
“About half of all wildfires in Canada are caused by lightning, [a figure] which is growing,” said Anderson. “The number of human-caused fires is declining, mainly due to improved fire prevention.”
The mild winter experienced across the country is the main culprit for the record fire season. Human-induced climate change was also a contributing factor, according to Anderson.
“Fires are occurring earlier in the year across Canada in part due to climate change, as we are seeing reduced snowpack and earlier spring thaws, which is exposing ground fuels earlier in the season,” added Anderson. “With warming, this fuel is drying out more quickly during the spring, increasing the risks for rapidly moving fires.
As of Tuesday morning, air quality alerts from the National Weather Service were in effect across the entire states of Michigan and Wisconsin and portions of Indiana and Minnesota, where smoke was reaching near-ground level.
The smoke has also made the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in Europe in recent days. As of Tuesday morning, it was mainly concentrated over the continent’s Iberian Peninsula.
“There can be enhanced sunrises and sunsets, along with hazy skies across parts of Portugal and Spain over the next few days,” said AccuWeather Meteorologist Alyssa Glenny. “There also appears to be some higher atmosphere smoke over Ireland and southern England, but it will likely be less noticeable near the ground there, due to cloudiness.”
According to data from the World Air Quality Project website, air quality was in the ‘moderate’ to ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ ranges across much of Portugal and Spain, as of Tuesday afternoon, local time, meaning air quality in cities there was better than in certain U.S. locations.
“Canadian wildfire smoke may partially reach the ground in Europe over the next few days, but most of it will remain higher in altitude,” said Boris Quennehen, an air quality scientist at Plume Labs, an AccuWeather-owned air quality company. “Any smoke will add to preexisting pollution across the continent.”
The exact trajectory and thickness of the smoke in the coming days across both the U.S. and Europe will depend on a number of factors, including wind speed and direction at various heights in the atmosphere and the presence or absence of precipitation. This can be difficult to predict beyond two days, but AccuWeather meteorologists expect smoke and hazy skies to be a persistent issue across the northern U.S.
Through midweek, areas of haze and smoke are expected to expand and move east across parts of the Great Lakes, Ohio Valley and interior Northeast, as the wind direction becomes favorable for the funneling of the smoke south from Canada. Occasionally poor air quality will accompany the reduction in visibility at times, including in the cities of Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit and Pittsburgh.
Later this week, it is likely that some smoke will reach the cities along the East Coast, perhaps even at ground level.
For there to be lasting relief from the effects of the smoke in the U.S. and Europe, the fires in Canada will have to be extinguished. According to Anderson, the long-term outlook for that is poor.
“While the projected weather pattern across Quebec and the Canadian Maritimes region looks favorable over the next few weeks, the outlook does not look good for western Canada,” said Anderson.
In the eastern part of the country, including Quebec, Anderson expects rainfall amounts to reach levels above historical averages and a lack of sustained heat into July. However, in the western regions, warmer and drier-than-average conditions are forecast throughout the month.
“In terms of smoke, I think the worst of it for July will likely be from the western Canadian wildfires, with plumes stretching south into the northern Plains and Upper Midwest in the U.S.,” Anderson said. “For the eastern wildfires, most of the smoke may remain contained across Quebec, but we may see some pulses of it extending south into northern New England from time to time.”
Produced in association with AccuWeather