Wildfires in Canada

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

Canada is the second-largest country in the world with an area of 3,855,100 million square miles (9.98 million square kilometers).

The country’s geography varies from the Pacific coastline, Rocky Mountains, Prairie landscapes, vast Boreal forests, and the Arctic tundra. This geographic diversity, coupled with climate influences, plays a crucial role in where wildfire occurs in Canada.

Canada’s boreal zone

The boreal zone refers to the expansive vegetative belt that stretches across the high northern latitudes in a circumpolar manner. The boreal zone is “circumpolar” and forms a ring just south of the Arctic Circle around the North Pole. T

The world’s boreal zone is a vital regulator of the global climate and a significant carbon sink.


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Major countries with boreal zones includes Canada, the United States, Norway, Sweden, Russia, China.

Map of Canada’s boreal and hemiboreal zones

A shaded relief map showing the extent of boreal vegetation in Canada.
Map of the boreal zone vegetation in Canada. Map: Lambert Conformal Conic map projection, Caitlin Dempsey. Boreal data: Natural Resource Canada, 2009.

The boreal zone is characterized by forests and various other types of wooded land, predominantly filled with cold-resistant tree species.

The boreal forest is the forested areas within the boreal zone.

To the north of the boreal zone is the treeless tundra.

Hemiboreal is a sub zone that is typically included in European maps of boreal zones but excluded from North American surveys. The hemiboreal subzone is a transitional area that lies at the southern boundary of boreal zones. Below the hemiboreal zone is the temperate zone of southern Canada.

A view of a boreal forest in Alaska.
The boreal forest in the Lake Clark area of Alaska is dominated by white spruce mixed with black spruce and birch. Photo: K. Miller, NPS, public domain.

About 14% of the world’s total land area is covered by boreal vegetation for a total of 1.9 billion hectares. 552 million hectares, or 28% of the total boreal zone, is found in Canada.

A large portion of Canada’s boreal zone is covered in boreal forest which includes species such as pine, spruce, larch, fir, poplar and birch. About 347 million hectares of the Canadian boreal zone are covered in trees and stretches from Yukon and British Columbia in the west to Newfoundland and Labrador in the east.

72% of Canada’s woodlands and forests are found in its boreal zone.

Canada’s wildfire season

Canada’s boreal zone’s vast stretch of woodland and forest is characterized by warm, dry summers which makes them prone to seasonal wildfires. The annual cycle of wildfires is part of the system of natural disturbances that helps the boreal forest to regenerate.

Under normal conditions, wildfires help to release stored nutrients on the forest floor and open up the canopy to allow new seedlings to germinate.

Wildfire season in Canada typically occurs between May and September each year. Melting snow in early May uncovers dead vegetation which provides fuel for wildfires.

Climate change is increasing the frequency of wildfires in Canada’s boreal zone

Climate change, unfortunately, is intensifying the cycle of wildfires which is having an adverse effect on boreal forests and carbon storage.

More frequent and stronger wildfires are releasing more of the carbon stock stored in the soils and altering the composition of the vegetation in this area. More: How Wildfires are Changing Boreal Forests and Increasing Emissions

Rising global temperatures have resulted in longer fire seasons and more extreme weather events, both of which contribute to increased wildfire activity. A report by Natural Resources Canada indicates that the area burned by wildfires has doubled since the 1970s, a trend attributed to climate change.

A labeled satellite image showing smoke and fire from a wildfire in Alberta, Canada on May 6, 2023.
A satellite image showing smoke and fire from wildfires in the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, Canada on May 6, 2023. Image: NASA Terra Satellite.

The 2023 wildfire seasons in western Canada is off to a strong start. As of August 17, 2023 a total of 13.7 million hectares (33.9 million acres) were reported to have burned by wildfires in Canada. This figure is seven times greater than the 25-year average for this date.

British Columbia, with its diverse terrain and climate, is a hotspot for wildfires. The province’s interior, with arid summer conditions and extensive coniferous forests, often experiences severe fires.

Alberta, with its combination of Boreal forests, Rocky Mountains, and grasslands, has a similar fire-prone geography.

Wildfires in the Northwest Territories

As of August 20, 2023 the Yellowknife Fire has been burning in the Northwest Territories. Satellite imagery acquired on August 16, 2023 shows the wildfire and streaming smoke affecting the nearby city of Yellowknife, home to about 20,000 residents.

Satellite imagery of a wildfire burning in Canada with smoke streaming from the area.
The Yellowknife Fire, August 16, 2023. Image: Landsat 8, NASA, public domain.

Wildfires in Alberta

provincial state of emergency was already declared by Alberta on May 6, 2023. As of May 15, 2023 there are  85 actively burning wildfires in the province, a higher number than usual for this early in the season. Despite it being the beginning of the wildfire seasons, 464 wildfires have burned so far this year in Alberta.

Hot and dry conditions this past spring have created more fuel and less moisture in the ground. Strong winds are further increasing the number and intensity of wildfires burning in Alberta.

Intense wildfires can also create their own weather.

Employing remote sensing technology, scientists at the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, mapped the development of a pyrocumulonimbus (pyroCb) cloud.

Pyrocumulonimbus clouds are a unique category of thunderclouds that are generated by intense heat and smoke. The pyroCB cloud originated from a wildfire located to the west of Edmonton on May 4, 2023.

Wildfires in British Columbia

British Columbia, the province that borders Alberta, has also seen a high number of wildfires. There are currently 54 active fires and 208 wildfires in British Columbia so far this year.

A screenshot showing British Columbia's wildfire online mapping application.
British Columbia’s wildfire service showing active wildfires in the province. Screenshot: May 15, 2023.

Read next: How to View Animated Satellite Imagery of the California Wildfires

References

8 facts about Canada’s boreal forest. (2020, July 16). Natural Resources Canada – Ressources naturelles Canada. https://natural-resources.canada.ca/our-natural-resources/forests/sustainable-forest-management/boreal-forest/8-facts-about-canadas-boreal-forest/17394

Brandt, J. P. (2009). The extent of the North American boreal zone. Environmental Reviews17(NA), 101-161. https://doi.org/10.1139/A09-004

Canadian Forest Service. (2022). The State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report. Natural Resources Canada. https://natural-resources.canada.ca/sites/nrcan/files/forest/sof2022/SoF_Annual2022_EN_access.pdf

Wildfires rage in Western Canada. (2023, May 11). National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service. https://www.nesdis.noaa.gov/news/wildfires-rage-western-canada

This article was originally written on on May 15, 2023 and has since been updated.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.