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Where There's Smoke: Early Warnings from Canada’s 2024 Wildfire Season

Xavier Delgado

Canada's infamous 2023 wildfire season broke records for its destruction and adverse environmental impact. As the 2024 season gets underway, Xavier Delgado writes on the threat of climate-related emergencies and why wildfires are a matter of Canadian and US national security.

Over the weekend of May 11, 2024, thousands of residents from Fort Nelson, BC were evacuated as westerly winds threatened to spread a raging wildfire that, as of Monday, had reached within 2 miles of the town. The evacuation is one of the first during the 2024 Canadian wildfire season, which began at the start of May and is expected to last through October.  

Canadian fire experts and officials have recorded over 1,000 blazes just two weeks into this year’s wildfire season. As of the publishing of this article, there are 143 wildfires active across the country, 39 of which are listed as out of control, including the one bearing down on Fort Nelson. The number and scale of wildfires to start the 2024 season have raised concerns that Canada’s record-breaking 2023 season may not have been an anomaly.

The Canadian 2023 wildfire season burned 11.91 million hectares (46 thousand square miles), about the size of Pennsylvania, breaking the previous record by over 4.8 million hectares (18.5 thousand square miles). Carbon emissions from the wildfires measured as high as 410 megatons, tripling the national record set during the 2014 Canadian wildfire season. The destruction from Canadian wildfires alone drove nearly a quarter increase in global tree cover loss in 2023, according to the World Resources Institute.  

In a world where climate-related disasters and extreme weather events are increasingly common, Canada’s wildfire season has become a predictable annual crisis. Every year, courageous firefighters risk their lives to protect communities and contain the damage caused by wildfires across the country. However, drier weather conditions and a lengthy procurement process for firefighting assets are making this effort an uphill battle, with broader consequences for Canadian national security. 

Canada’s latest defense policy update notes that communities are frequently relying on the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to assist civil authorities in managing climate-related emergencies. The CAF deployed over 2,100 personnel across Canada during the 2023 wildfire season, and the number of CAF operations in response to natural disasters has doubled every five years since 2010. This reliance on the CAF stretches its capacity thin, limiting the resources that Canada can allocate to other security initiatives in a time when allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific are calling for more global engagement.

Ottawa has made it clear that Canadian environmental security is a matter of Canadian national security. The fact that it is also a matter of US national security has received significantly less attention. 

During last year’s wildfire season, US cities across the East Coast recorded their highest Air Quality Index (AQI) levels in over a decade. At one point, New York City’s AQI level (392) measured higher than the levels of the next two worst cities– Dubai (168) and Delhi (164) – combined. East Coast residents flocked to social media with pictures of US skylines obscured by smog and an atmosphere tinted by an unearthly orange haze. During the peak of the smoke drift, the Environmental Protection Agency urged millions of Americans to stay indoors.

Fallout from climate-related disasters is a subtype of transnational threats, identified in the Biden Administration’s National Security Strategy as one of two high-level strategic challenges that frame the current threat environment. These issues, which also include inflation, energy shortages, and food insecurity, cannot be controlled with traditional security tools like border walls and security checkpoints. The smoke drift from Canadian wildfires exemplifies the nature of such threats: crises in other countries can quickly spread across US borders, especially when they originate from one of the United States’ two land neighbors. 

Ottawa and Washington have a longstanding agreement to share firefighting resources under the Canada/United States Reciprocal Forest Fire Fighting Arrangement (RFFFA). Established by exchange of diplomatic note in 1982, the RFFFA enables provincial and federal authorities to request cross-border assistance in the form of personnel, equipment, and facilities. The RFFFA’s 2022 operating plan includes protocol for requesting assistance, attaining expedited Customs and Immigration clearances, and adhering to safety regulations in both countries.

In the short-term, Canada is investing in firefighting resources to better prepare its military and emergency personnel to manage wildfires during the 2024 season. For long-term solutions, Ottawa has partnered with research institutions on studies focused on the root causes of extreme weather events, namely climate change, and creating innovative solutions to proactively mitigate wildfire risk during peak season.

The United States will assist Canada in both endeavors: ensuring Canadian firefighting authorities have the resources they need to contain wildfires and collaborating with Canadian researchers on long-term solutions to the climate crisis. Focusing solely on responding to crises as they unfold will force both countries to deploy more and more resources as the root causes underpinning wildfires continue to worsen. While there is likely no magic bullet for preventing wildfires across the country, Canada and the United States should proactively consider cross-border resource allocation, emergency preparedness procedures, and existing avenues for research into risk mitigation practices.

Beneath the high-level analysis of climate impact, bilateral cooperation, and national preparedness during Canada’s wildfire season are the stories of people enduring through tragedy, and hardship. As the volume of destruction caused by wildfires grows, so too does the number of Canadians at risk of losing their communities, stability, and livelihoods. In 2021, a wildfire in swept through Lytton, BC, destroying 90% of buildings and displacing 210 people. The town is still struggling to financially recover three years later, weighing heavily on both its former residents and the dozens of neighboring communities that used Lytton as a local hub for services and goods in the otherwise remote southern region of British Columbia. 

Cities and towns across the continent will be increasingly at risk of facing similar challenges if climate conditions continue to deteriorate. Environmental threats do not respect national borders – their transnational nature will require transnational solutions beyond the current scope of Canada-US partnership. Ottawa and Washington should act now to prepare for the challenging years that lie ahead: the lives and livelihoods of their citizens are at stake.

About the Author

Xavier Delgado

Xavier Delgado

Associate, Canada Institute;
Research Director, Washington Forum on the Canadian Economy
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Canada Institute

The mission of the Wilson Center's Canada Institute is to raise the level of knowledge of Canada in the United States, particularly within the Washington, DC policy community.  Research projects, initiatives, podcasts, and publications cover contemporary Canada, US-Canadian relations, North American political economy, and Canada's global role as it intersects with US national interests.  Read more