WunderBlog Archive » Category 6™

Category 6 has moved! See the latest from Dr. Jeff Masters and Bob Henson here.

Canada's 2nd Largest Fire on Record Spreading Smoke to Europe

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 2:14 PM GMT on July 13, 2013

A massive fire burning in northern Quebec is Canada's second largest fire since fire records began in 1959, according to the Canadian Forest Service. The fire was more than twice the size of Rhode Island on Tuesday--1,621,000 acres. Called the Eastmain fire, the near-record blaze was ignited by lightning on May 25, and was burning along a 100-km front near the east shore of James Bay by the village of Eastmain. At times, the fire spread at 19 mph (30 kph). The fire cut power to Montreal's subway system and to 10% of the population of Quebec (500,000 customers) on July 4, when smoke from the fire ionized the air by key hydroelectric power lines, causing a cascade failure.

Figure 1. On July 4, 2013, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image of wildfires burning in western Quebec near James Bay. Red outlines indicate hot spots where MODIS detected unusually warm surface temperatures associated with fire. The Eastmain fire, which became the 2nd largest fire since 1959 in Canada at 1.6 million acres, is at the upper left of the image, just east of James Bay. Other fires near Nemiscau, Quebec (about 150 - 200 km to the southeast of Eastmain) are also burning, but these patches are "only" 120,000 - 200,000 acres. MODIS also observed smoke from the fires moving across the Atlantic Ocean on July 5, July 6, and July 7. By July 8, smoke was drifting over Scandinavia. Image credit: NASA.

The largest fire in Canadian history was the 2,119,000 acre fire that burned in 1979 in the Northwest Territories. For comparison, the total acreage burned by wildfires in the U.S. as of July 4, 2013 was 1.9 million acres, so the Eastmain fire by itself has burned almost as large an area. The fire's spread is being limited by the Opinaca Reservoir on its east, and by areas burned in 2002 to the south. The fire spread rapidly last week into a patch along its northern and northeastern sides that burned in 1989 (click hereto see the very impressive spread of the fire between 16:45 UTC and 18:22 UTC last Thursday from the Suomi NPP VIIRS shortwave IR instrument; look on the northeastern front of the fire, which is inside the former 1989 fire patch--it spreads extraordinarily rapidly at approximately 10 mph.) While cool and relatively wet weather is expected in Quebec during the coming week, keeping fire danger low, there is speculation by some Canadian fire experts that the Eastmain fire will burn the entire summer unless there are a significant number of consecutive rainy days.

Figure 2. Dr. Jason Box extracts a core sample from the Greenland Ice Sheet on July 9, 2013, during the DarkSnow Project. The core will be analyzed to determine if smoke from wildfires is contributing to melting of the ice sheet by darkening it.

Canadian fire smoke reaches Europe
Smoke from this summer's fires in Quebec have crossed the Atlantic and reached Scandanavia, according to ScienceDaily.com. The smoke also passed over Greenland when the crowd source-funded DarkSnow Project was taking samples of the Greenland ice. The DarkSnow Project was designed to see if forest fires are significantly darkening the Greenland Ice Sheet, contributing to melt.

Climate change and fire suppression in Canada
Fire suppression policies are different in Canada than in the U.S. In areas where these fire are burning, there is no direct fire suppression unless fire is near villages and hydroelectric facilities. Nevertheless, fire suppression costs $500 million per year in Canada. "In areas with high timber or other values, a full fire-suppression response is used in attempts to control fires as quickly as possible. In areas with low values at risk to fire, a modified fire-suppression response, which attempts to control fires in a limited way, is usually used: isolated values threatened by fire are protected, or the fire is simply monitored. While only 5% of the fires detected during 1990–2004 received a modified response, they accounted for about 60% of the area burned " (Hirsch et al., 2006.)
Fire suppression efficiency depends on many factors, including fire danger, the size at which the fire is attacked, and the number of fires already burning. According to Cummings (2005) and Martell and Sun (2008), fire suppression can significantly reduce area burned in boreal forests. Fire suppression can reduce area burned by means of initial attack, which reduces the number of large fires. Consequently, fire suppression agencies are efficient when the fire danger is low and when there is not that much fire already burning, a situation that will be less common in the near future. For Ontario, Podur and Wotton (2010) projected "a doubling of area burned in the Intensive and Measured fire management zones of Ontario by the decade of 2040, and an eightfold increase in area burned by the end of the 21st century" due to climate change (IPCC A2 scenario.) Fires that are too intense to control will overwhelm the fire management system and cause major increases in area burned.

Another study (Boulanger et al. 2013) predicted for 2040 in eastern Canada a 2.2- and 2.4-fold increase in the number of fires and the annual area burned, respectively, mostly as a result of an increase in extreme fire-weather normals and drought. As extreme fire danger would occur later in the fire season on average, the fire season would shift slightly later (5–20 days) in the summer. However, if broadleaf species become more common in this area as a result of climate change, this may offset the climate change impact on drought, as broadleaf trees are less flammable than coniferous trees (Girardin et al. 2013).

Video 1. Maxime Duperré, traveling in a truck near Nemiscau, Quebec, took this video of one of the massive fires burning in Quebec this July.

 Boulanger, Y., Gauthier, S., Gray, D. R., Le Goff, H., Lefort, P., Morissette, J. 2013. Fire regime zonation under curent and future climate over eastern Canada. Ecol. Appl. 23: 904-923. 
Cumming, S.G. 2005. Effective fire suppression in the boreal forests. Can. J. For. Res. 35: 772-786.
Girardin, M.P., Ali, A. A., Carcaillet, C., Blarquez, O., Hély, C., Terrier, A., Genries, A., Bergeron, Y. 2013. Vegetation limits the impact of a warm climate on boreal wildfires. New Phytologist (In Press).
Hirsch, K.G.; Fuglem, P., Technical Coordinators. 2006. Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy: background syntheses, analyses, and perspectives. Can. Counc. For. Minist., Nat. Resour. Can., Can. For. Serv., North. For. Cent., Edmonton, AB.
Martell, D. and Sun, H. 2008. The impact of fire suppression, vegetation, and weather on the area burned by lightning-caused fires in Ontario. Can. J. For. Res. 38:1547-1563.
D. Podur, J. and Wotton, B. M. 2010. Will climate change overwhelm fire management capacity ? Ecological Modelling 221:1301-1309

A tough year for natural disasters in Canada
This summer's huge fires in Quebec have been caused by what is being called the driest summer in 40 years in the James Bay region. However, other portions of Canada have received record rains that have triggered two of the most damaging floods in Canadian history. The first of these floods hit Calgary, Alberta in mid-June, causing $3.8 billion in damage--the most expensive flood ever to hit Canada, and the second most expensive natural disaster of any kind. And on July 8, Toronto was hit with its heaviest 1-day rainfall on record, with a preliminary damage estimate by an official from the Insurance Bureau of Canada of $600 million, which would make it the 4th costliest flood in Canadian history. Here are the top five most damaging floods in Canada, with the non-bold faced entries taken from EM-DAT (unadjusted for inflation):

1) $3.8 billion, June 2013, Calgary, Alberta
2) $0.8 billion, May 2011, St. Andrew, Manitoba
3) $0.7 billion, July 1996, Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, Quebec
4) $0.6 billion, July 2013, Toronto, Ontario
5) $0.4 billion, June 2005, Alberta

The Atlantic is quiet
The Atlantic is relatively quiet. A small non-tropical area of low pressure is developing near the coast of Alabama along a stalled-out cold front, and the remains of Chantal are moving northwards towards the North Carolina coast. Neither of these areas appears to be of concern, and in their 8 am EDT Saturday Tropical Weather Outlook, NHC gave both of these areas a 10% chance of development into a tropical depression or tropical storm by Monday. None of the reliable computer models are predicting development of of anything in the Atlantic over the next seven days. If conditions remain quiet, my next post will be on Monday.

Jeff Masters


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.