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Communities are evacuated as wildfire season gets underway in Canada

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Wildfire season is underway in Mexico and Canada.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Mexico, drought affects most of the country, creating conditions for fire. In Canada, entire communities have evacuated at the start of what looks like another hard season.

MARTIN: Journalist Emma Jacobs is with us now to talk about the fires in western Canada. Good morning, Emma.

EMMA JACOBS: Good morning.

MARTIN: So could you just start by giving us a sense of where these fires are and how bad they are?

JACOBS: It's early on in Canada's wildfire season, but we have already seen fire spreading very quickly and getting close to a number of towns and cities in western Canada. On Tuesday afternoon, around 6,000 residents of neighborhoods around Fort McMurray in Alberta got ordered to evacuate. The regional fire chief, Jody Butz, said this is about getting residents out of harm's way.

JODY BUTZ: The reason why this is so important is to clear them out so that we can mobilize our fire resources to fight this fire and defend these neighborhoods.

JACOBS: Fort McMurray is an oil production hub that was fully evacuated in 2016 due to a wildfire. It became one of the costliest natural disasters in Canadian history. Now 50 separate fires are burning in Alberta. More wildfires in the provinces of British Columbia and Manitoba have forced thousands to evacuate.

MARTIN: Now, you are reminding us that Canada's 2023 wildfire season was the country's worst on record. So what are the conditions as this season gets underway?

JACOBS: Some of the fires burning now actually began last season. They're what's called zombie fires that have been smoldering underground all winter in the soil and peat. This spring, these fires reignited and spread. And fires do not normally burn over the winter in western Canada, so this is a very unusual effect of how bad last season was.

Last year, total evacuations reached 230,000 people, and fires burned nearly 50 million acres. But emergency preparedness officials in Canada say this season could be even worse. Western Canada has also had a very bad drought, which has created a lot of fuel for fires. That's combined with warmer temperatures and less winter snow to help fires grow a lot faster, all factors predicted to worsen with climate change.

MARTIN: I think we've all figured out that the effects of wildfires are not contained by borders. Last year, Canadian wildfires affected air quality in the U.S. Can we expect a similar impact this year?

JACOBS: It depends how the smoke moves, but wildfire smoke is particularly hazardous for people. In the last couple of days, Minnesota, Montana, North and South Dakota have all had air quality alerts related to smoke from Canadian wildfires. Fire can also create other ripple effects. For example, we saw telecom disruptions over the weekend in northern Canada. Fires damaged fiber optic cables that reach communities in the far north. So a lot of serious disruption can happen far from the fires themselves, and we could see a lot more of it this summer.

MARTIN: That is journalist Emma Jacobs reporting from Montreal. Emma, thank you so much.

JACOBS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emma Jacobs
[Copyright 2024 NPR]