Canada wildfires 2024: What to expect for 2024, and is climate change causing more fires? Your top questions answered

From how wildfires start to how to stay safe amid smokey conditions: We brought your questions to experts

Canada in 2023 endured one of the most destructive wildfire seasons ever recorded, according to government data.

Over 6,132 wildfires burned from coast-to-coast, fueled by record-high temperatures and widespread drought, torching over a staggering 16.5 million hectares of land.

“The word ‘unprecedented’ doesn’t do justice to the severity of the wildfires in Canada this year,” says Yan Boulanger, research scientist in forest ecology at Natural Resources Canada. “From a scientific perspective, the doubling of the previous burned area record is shocking.”

As wildfire risks continue to intensify into 2024, we looked at what wildfire questions Canadians are asking, and brought them to experts.

Wildfires can start either by natural events like lightning strikes or through human activities, according to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

The Ministry says roughly half of all wildfires are sparked by human actions.

Some of these human actions are:

  1. Cigarette butts

  2. Equipment

  3. Burning debris

  4. Arson

  5. Campfires

The Ontario forestry ministry says the intensity and movement of wildland fire changes depending on the landscape, weather patterns, and availability of fuel sources such as dry grass, dead leaves and brush.

"Ontario has a diverse landscape and weather patterns, so wildland fire activity in Ontario's Northwest Fire Region can be quite different from what is happening in the Northeast Fire Region," writes the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

Wildfires are common in Canada's western provinces, but over 2023, the eastern provinces of Nova Scotia, Quebec and parts of Ontario were also left reeling from out of control wildfires, engulfing the provinces in thick, dense smoke.

Below is a map released by Natural Resources Canada showing locations of active wildfires burning in September of 2023.

NRCan’s interactive map showing active fires as of September 5, 2023. (Screengrab:Natural Resources Canada)
NRCan’s interactive map showing active fires as of September 5, 2023. (Screengrab:Natural Resources Canada)

How unusual are wildfires in Nova Scotia?

According to reporting by Reuters, Nova Scotia's climate is heavily influenced by the North Atlantic Ocean, which brings higher humidity and more moderate temperatures than many other parts of the country.

Fires are not unusual but tend to be much smaller than those in the west. Most of the wildfires over 2023 are believed to have been accidentally caused by human activity, sparked by extremely warm and dry conditions.

Dr. John Granton, a respirologist at the Toronto General Hospital (University Health Network), told Yahoo Canada wildfires cause air pollution that can have a far-reaching effect on human health.

Small air pollutant particles in the smoke, called the PM2.5 particles, are "where a lot of the toxic stuff lives," Granton explained.

"That's not filtered by your upper airway, that gets access to your lower airway and into your bloodstream even — and that's where the danger lies.

READ MORE: Can wildfire smoke make you sick? How to stay safe amid air quality alerts, wildfire evacuations in Canada

"That can cause asthma attacks, can cause heart attacks, can contribute to hospitalizations and has long-term health outcomes."

Even just the smell could cause problems to some, he said.

According to Granton, "there's not a lot of data to support the health benefits of masking" when it comes to safety from wildfire smoke. But, he said there is research looking into the effectiveness of filters.

"Cloth masks or scarves and things are not effective at all," the doctor claimed.

But, surgical masks and N95 filter masks "tend to filter those smaller particles," he added, "apparently some of those masks are effective."

"Every spring in Ontario, FireRanger crews prepare for the season by completing regular training, covering skills like hover exit, chainsaw certification, first aid along with field exercises to master equipment and tactics for handling wildfires," writes the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

The ministry says they also engage with communities at events to spread awareness about fire safety and the FireSmart program, emphasizing that everyone plays a role in reducing fire risks.

Firefighter Jake Botts uses a drip torch during a prescribed burn of about 27 acres near Inskip, Calif., Tuesday Oct. 28, 2008. This is the first of four sections in this area set to be burned this week in an effort to mimic natural processes and restore the forest to a more healthy environment for trees and wildlife.  (AP Photo/Bill Husa/Chico Enterprise-Record)

Ontario also has prevention and mitigation teams collaborating with communities, industries and partners to minimize the impact of wildland fire. This includes prescribed burns by Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services (AFFES) to reduce wildland fire hazards and meet ecological and resource management objectives.

The Ontario forestry ministry says the number of wildland fire occurrences varies from year-to-year, adding that factors like climate and weather events can influence the number of fires being reported over the year.

Government data shows that from June 1 to 25, 2023, more land burned in southern Quebec than in the previous 20 years combined. These conditions led to the largest single fire ever recorded in southern Quebec, which consumed 460,000 hectares.

These satellite images from June 6, from top left, June 7, June 25, and June 27, 2023, show the wind movement from wildfire smoke in Quebec, Canada. Heavy smoke from wildfires in Canada has blanketed parts of the Midwest, causing hazardous air for residents, just weeks after drifting smoke did the same thing along parts of the East Coast. (NASA Worldview, (EOSDIS) via AP)

The ministry says more wildfires are being reported, thanks to new methods of gathering data.

"There are a variety of ways a wildland fire can be reported in Ontario; for example, organized aerial detection flights, reports from commercial and private aircraft, and public calls," writes the forestry ministry.

The length of time a wildland fire lasts is dependent on several factors, such as the type and quantity of fuel on the landscape, the Ontario forestry ministry says.

Other factors include:

  1. Size

  2. Weather Patterns

  3. Landscape Type

In some cases, a wildland fire can be extinguished in a few hours and for larger complex fires they can take weeks or even months before they are extinguished.

"Wildland fires that are an immediate threat to high-priority values, such as communities or infrastructure, will be responded to as quickly as possible to minimize damages and disruption," writes the Ontario forestry ministry.

There is nothing more terrifying than hearing news of a wildfire sweeping the outskirts of your community.

Here are several ways the Ontario forestry ministry says you can keep yourself and your home safe.

  • Keep a 1.5 metre non-combustible zone around your home and deck

  • Clean and maintain gutters and roofs to reduce fuel for embers to ignite

  • Plant wildfire resistant vegetation to reduce flammability of your landscaping

  • Prune trees to create a two-metre clearance from the ground, especially on conifer trees

  • Move firewood piles to at least 10 metres away from your home or outbuildings

Dr. Rebecca Saari, an Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering with a focus in climate the University of Waterloo also urges Canadians to keep an eye on air quality alerts if they are in a region where there is heavy smoke.

"In the short term, make sure you look at air quality statements in your area and follow associated guidance," Saari tells Yahoo News Canada.

"If you are surrounded by smoke, stay indoors with your doors and windows closed."

You can check what the air quality rating in your region is here.

"There is significant evidence that climate change is contributing to increased wildfires in North America," said Saari.

Saari says this is largely due to the fact that wildfires depend on a range of weather variables such as dryness, rain and heat.

"Climate change contributes to higher drought conditions and warmer conditions, both which lead to higher wildfire risk," said Saari.

She says that since 2016, data shows that there are cumulative hectares being burned, and this can be linked to effects driven by climate change such as the record-breaking temperatures of 2023.

"We are seeing an earlier start to wildfire season this year, with a number of fires burning before the official first day of wildfire season," said Saari.