‘Zombie Fires’ Ignite at a Disturbing Pace in Canada


Despite the harsh winter in Canada, remnants of last year’s record-breaking wildfire season persist in the form of ‘zombie fires’. These fires, which burn slowly beneath the surface, are currently occurring at an unprecedented rate, sparking concerns about the upcoming summer. The phenomenon is particularly noticeable in Fort Nelson, British Columbia (BC), where clouds of white smoke can be seen and smelled by those passing through the town.

Local firefighter and scientist Sonja Leverkus has observed these fires firsthand, noting that even during a snowstorm, the snow appeared blueish-grey due to the smoke. The smoke was still visible in February, even on extremely cold days.

Zombie fires, also known as overwintering fires, are not uncommon in BC. However, the province saw a record 106 active zombie fires in January, raising alarm among fire scientists. If not extinguished by March, these fires could reignite once the snow melts and they are exposed to air.

Alberta, BC’s neighbouring province, is also experiencing an increase in these winter fires. Jennifer Baltzer, a professor of biology at Wilfrid Laurier University, expressed concern about this trend, especially following Canada’s devastating wildfire season last year.

Experts attribute the high number of zombie fires to the previous wildfire season and the ongoing extreme drought in BC. The drought conditions have persisted through the winter, leading to noticeably low snowfall levels.

Zombie fires have become more frequent in recent years due to climate change. While they currently pose no risk, there are concerns that they could reignite if BC continues to experience low snow or rain levels into the spring. This could potentially result in an early start to the wildfire season.

While it is too early to predict the upcoming fire season, the current conditions suggest a potentially active spring, particularly as this is an El Nino year, which typically brings hot and dry conditions to western Canada.

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