Forest fires threaten two species –

Zombie fires and drought: Canada fears another summer of megafires

In western Canada, zombie fires combined with a lack of snow just weeks before the start of fire season are evoking the worst after an apocalyptic summer of 2023.

It's a never-ending battle. Even in the dead of winter, Canadian firefighters are hard at work as nearly 150 fires continue to burn across the West.

“We are having an extraordinary winter after an extraordinary summer,” lamented Josée St-Onge, spokesman for the Alberta Fire Department, to AFP.

The cause: the spread of zombie fires smoldering beneath the snow in the dense depths of the boreal forest moors. In the western provinces of Canada they are ten to twelve times more numerous this year.

Removing them is a laborious task because they are difficult to spot and require scraping up the soil to prevent the humus – that thick material – beneath the snow from being slowly consumed. Replanting forms a layer that can be up to 80 cm high.

There are currently more than 90 active fires in British Columbia alone, a record. “Typically in the winter we average more than seven or eight,” said Forrest Tower, spokesman for the fire department in this province, which is often the hardest hit by fires.

And if firefighters fear these smoldering fires, it's because once spring arrives and temperatures rise, they can quickly turn into a giant inferno.

“We are in a more dramatic situation than last year because the drought is still there, but on top of that we still have some of the fires from last year,” explains Marc-André Parisien, a researcher with the Canadian Forest Service.

A record year

As a victim of the devastating effects of global warming, Canada experienced the worst wildfire season in its history in 2023.

Almost 18 million hectares of land went up in smoke – an area larger than Greece. In addition, around 200,000 people had to be evacuated and the smoke from the fires spread to the USA and even Europe.

Barely three months after the official end of the 2023 season, experts are “very worried” about a repeat, particularly due to the lack of snow that has exacerbated the already existing drought.

“Snowfall is well below normal across a fairly large portion of Canada. In some places it is quite spectacular,” explains Forrest Tower to AFP, who speaks of -50% in his province.

However, the more snow there is, the lower the risk of fire, because in spring the melt helps to moisten the ground.

According to Natural Resources Canada, snowpack has declined by 5% to 10% per decade since 1981. And this winter was characterized by milder winter temperatures, averaging 4 degrees. © s Celsius above seasonal norms, according to the Environment Ministry.

Under current conditions, “all it takes is a light wind or a storm for leaves and conifers to catch fire.” It is an extremely flammable fuel,” adds Marc-André Parisien.

“At least in the western part of the country, everything is prepared for a very active fire season,” adds Mike Flannigan, a professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia.

The only hope could be a particularly rainy spring.

But “seasonal forecasts from Environment Canada suggest warmer temperatures are likely through at least June,” he adds, referring to the El Niño phenomenon. O.

So it's already time to prepare: Alberta announced Tuesday it had recruited 100 additional firefighters, moved up mobilization to April and has already banned burning near wildfires.