‘It burns wild and free up there’: Canada fires force US crews to shift strategy (2023)

Dustan Mueller had come to expect the unexpected. The US Forest Service deputy fire chief had been deployed thousands of miles from home to battle an out-of-control blaze in the wooded bogs and swampland of Alberta, Canada.

A visual guide to the Canada wildfires and US smoke pollutionRead more

In the dry moisture-hungry forests of northernCaliforniahe was used to, a favorably-timed rainstorm would likely mean an end to the fire. But in this marshy terrain, even a late-spring storm could do little to slow the flames: two days after being doused, the conflagration roared back to life, churning through thick bands of desiccated moss and the stands of black spruce and aspen.

“It is nothing like what we have in California,” said Mueller, now back in the US after leading an American team of federal wildland firefighters to tag in on one of the2,765 fires that have erupted in Canada this year. “The trees are like little matchsticks – and just as flammable.”

Canada is in the midst ofa record-shattering fire seasonthat has left more than 14m acres charred and stretched emergency resources to the limit – with months to go before the season ends.


Across Canada this week, 161 fires are burning, with78 of them considered to be out of control.

And the effects of these large fires aren’t just local:thick smoke blanketed swaths of the USin early June while this week,Chicago and Detroit briefly had the most unhealthy air in the worldas a new wave of ashen air drifted south.

The choking haze reflected a stark reality: wildfires are immune to borders – and in turn, the response has been international

(Video) This wildfire season so far is Canada's worst ever recorded

US, Australian, New Zealand, South African, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Mexican, Chilean and Costa Rican firefighters have joined the struggle in Canada, highlighting how countries around the world are contending with shared and intensifying catastrophes fueled by the climate crisis.

‘It burns wild and free up there’: Canada fires force US crews to shift strategy (1)

But key differences in approach have prompted new questions about best practices in the face of a global challenge. Along with new types of terrain, US firefighters in Canada have encountered different techniques in the early stages of a burn, a new set of safety protocols, and contrasting requirements for protective equipment.

As federal firefighters who have worked across the US, Mueller and his team were accustomed to dropping into new jurisdictions and containing flames on a variety of vegetation-types. But Canadian policies, determined by each individual province, required some shifts in strategy.

In California, where mountain towns and communities are tucked into the most vulnerable forested canyons, a layered matrix of agencies act quickly. The “initial-attack phase” is seen as essential to stop ignitions turning into infernos. But Mueller and his team found that in Canada, far fewer firefighters were sent in early.

A week of wildfires

“With so many fires across the whole country, resources are scarce,” he said. With a system under pressure, different priorities were set. Some blazes – especially those considered too difficult or dangerous to contain – are left to run their course. “It burns wild and free up there.”

Even when communities aren’t threatened, firefighters in California are also tasked with protecting assets, which range from large stretches of private property to highly valuable timber forests.

“[Canada’s] main values at risk are a lot different than what ours are,” said Mueller. “Down here, after human life, trees are a valuable resource because they are worth a lot of money.”

A strong culture of fire suppression has defined US strategies over the last century,leaving forests dangerously overgrown.

Fire is a natural part of ecosystem in the American west, where the tall trees have evolved to thrive with slow-burning flames that clear the undergrowth and renew the soil.

(Video) Canada unveils plan to reduce climate impacts amid record wildfire season | FULL

‘It burns wild and free up there’: Canada fires force US crews to shift strategy (2)

But crowded stands, left more vulnerable to the effects of drought, disease, and insect infestations, are littered with dead and drying trees.

The climate crisis has turned up the dial, producing a new kind of wildfire that burns hotter, faster, and leaves little in its wake.

While there’s been a slow shift to bring heathy fires back to the forests – experts have criticized US agencies with causing more devastation by not letting enough land burn.

Canadian crews also have different requirements when it comes to protective equipment, and aren’t required to carry fire shelters – small aluminum foil-lined sackdesigned to reflect radiant heat, that a firefighter can climb inside when there are no other options for escape.

In southern California forest officials back culling trees. Locals are furiousRead more

While the tool is considered an essential “last-resort” protection by American agencies, Canadian strategies focus on ensuring firefighters aren’t put in situations where they might have to rely on the devices. The shelters aren’t always reliable, especially in the types of terrain where Canadian crews often fight fire.

“The overall goal is to save human life – and that includes their own firefighters not just the public,” Mueller said.

That ethos is also applied to working conditions.

Even though the 4.30am sunrise and 11.30pm sunset allowed for more daylight hours on the fire line, the American firefighters found they had to cut their typical shifts short.

(Video) 'Record breaking': Latest update on wildfires and poor air quality across British Columbia

“We were used to operating in a 24-hour environment,” Mueller said, but he and his crew had to head out after a 12-hour mark, in order to abide by Alberta rules, which mandate periods of rest to protect against stress and fatigue.

Wildfire ecologist Robert Gray said that on-the-ground realities dictate the difference in strategies between the two countries and this has led to incorrect assumptions that Canadian crews take fewer risks.

“The values shared between Canadian and American firefighters are the same: if a fire is threatening your community or critical infrastructure they attack and defend,” he said.

In Canada, there are rarely dramatic images of fire crews rushing to save burning communities, largely because the bulk of the country’s wildfires burn in relatively remote locations.

“In California, you see these structural fire crews battling wildfires. They’re gonna make a stand, come hell or high water, they’re gonna save this house,” said Gray. “You just don’t get that in Canada. In the massive fires, they’re just too hot – you can’t get close to it anyway. Instead, you stand off at large distances, build a big box and do burnout to contain it.”

Hot, dry weather in Canada is expected to last months, but high-risk conditions are likely to arise elsewhere and countries may soon have to call their firefighters home.

There is also broad recognition by the international science community that an increase in catastrophic fire means an increase in carbon emissions, fueling a vicious cycle of intensifying climate conditions.

Accordingly, crews across the world are often ready to battle blazes wherever they are burning.

‘It burns wild and free up there’: Canada fires force US crews to shift strategy (3)

Mueller said after 17 days in Alberta, he and his team were relieved by an Australian one. Mexicanhand crewshad already started to show up to aid in suppression. “It was four nations on one fire – pretty cool.”

Crews from10 different countries are currently fighting firein Canada. And while nation-to-nation agreements are most common, crews aren’t always deployed by countries – states and provinces have their own sets of agreements, especially among neighbors.

(Video) ‘We can’t wait’: Frustrated Alberta farmers fight wildfires on their own

In Washington, which shares a border with British Columbia, compacts have been in place for more than 100 years, according to state forester George Geissler. The state quickly mobilized when provinces across Canada called for resources, sending everything from crews to airtankers.

Such state-level agreements are often easier and more efficient to implement, and the flow of help goes in both directions, he said.

There are still big differences in how each agency approaches fire suppression and mitigation, but Geissler said that at every level – from small community stations to international agencies – open communication produces the best outcomes. “All of us are comparing notes,” he said.

“Canadian firefighters only work 12 hours a day – and that’s a good thing,” he said, championing a budding movement in the US to provide better care and pay for federal firefighters in the face of a looming crisis.

‘I thought I was broken’: when wildland firefighters head home, trauma takes holdRead more

Among the American wildland firefighting community mental issues abound. Ferocious fires are harder to fight, requiring longer stretches of time and increasingly dangerous work. There are more injuries and more deaths, andmany of those who return home at the end of the season are scarred by PTSD. Recent surveys show that the job is inflicting deep wounds on marriages, producing higher numbers of drug and alcohol dependence, and that more firefighters are dying from suicide than on the fire line.

The increasingly international nature of firefighting efforts reflect how threats are growing for the public around the world – and not just for those who live in high-risk areas. “Even if you might not have a fire near you, you are going to feel the effects of fire,” said Riva Duncan, a retired fire staff officer for the USFS and the vice-president of the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters which is pushing for legislation to increase pay and essential benefits for federal wildland firefighters.

So far, the US fire season there has been quieter, thanks to an incredibly wet winter in the American west. But conditions are expected to change. Soon, there may not be as many crews available to go north. And the US will then be welcoming help from around the world.

“While our system here is absolutely amazing, there’s still a lot that we are trying to get done,” she said. “It truly is a global problem.”


Why are fires burning in Canada? ›

Climate research suggests that heat and drought associated with global warming are major reasons behind the number of fires and their intensity. Canada has the world's largest intact forest ecosystem, and many parts of the country have recently experienced drought and high heat.

What was Smokey the Bear's original message? ›

Smokey's original catchphrase was "Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires." In 1947, it became "Remember... Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires." In 2001, it was again updated to its current version of "Only You Can Prevent Wildfires" in response to a massive outbreak of wildfires in natural areas other ...

How many Canadian wildfires are still burning? ›

Of the 522 fires currently burning, 262 are listed as out of control across Canada, including British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. Along with remoteness and distance from people, terrain is another factor.

What part of Canada is burning? ›

Where are the wildfires in Canada? The wildfires are concentrated in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwestern Territories in western Canada; as well as in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia in eastern Canada, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

How can we stop Canadian wildfires? ›

One of the fire prevention methods that Canada should expand, experts said, is prescribed burns, a practice that involves setting a specific area on fire under controlled conditions to incinerate trees, dead branches, brush and other materials that could otherwise be fuel for wildfires.

How much of Canada has burned? ›

As of its most recent update, the interagency fire center has recorded 3,056 wildfires since the beginning of 2023. The fires have scorched at least 8.1 million hectares — or around 20 million acres — of land across Canada this year.

What effect did Smokey the Bear's message have on the amount of forest fires? ›

Smokey's popularity made him an effective spokesbear for the Forest Service's fire prevention message, which helped dramatically reduce fire on America's public lands. Between the 1930s and 1950s, the average number of annual wildfires in the United States decreased by over 40,000.

Why did Smokey the Bear's slogan change? ›

only YOU can prevent forest fires.” The new slogan remained in place for more than five decades, until it was changed in 2000 to “Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires.” The change was implemented in an effort to expand the campaign focus to include grassland fires as well as forest fires.

Why did they get rid of Smokey the Bear? ›

By 1952, Smokey Bear had attracted considerable commercial interest, so the United States Congress passed the Smokey Bear Act to remove the character from the public domain and place it under the control of the Secretary of Agriculture.

Is the Canada fires still going? ›

The fires are still burning, with smoke now affecting states like Michigan and Illinois.

How long will wildfires in Canada last? ›

Canada's wildfire season typically runs from May to October, suggesting the situation could grow worse as 2023 progresses.

What country has had the most wildfires? ›

1. California, Washington, and Oregon – United States.

Where is the most fire in the world? ›

1. 2003 Siberian Taiga Fires (Russia) – 55 Million Acres.

Where are fires burning in USA? ›

Current Wildfires Burning in the U.S.
  • Oregon. 33 fires. 3,904 acres.
  • Arizona. 19 fires. 2,964 acres.
  • New Mexico. 12 fires. 492 acres.
  • Mississippi. 6 fires. 131 acres.
  • Colorado. 5 fires. 87 acres.
  • Washington. 6 fires. 16 acres.
  • California. 33 fires. 4 acres.
  • Utah. 3 fires. 1 acres.

How did Canada wildfires start 2023? ›

A not-insignificant chorus of Canadians blame the 2023 wildfires sweeping across the country on arson. But the truth is lightning and carelessness cause the majority of wildfires, made more likely by heat and dry conditions caused by climate change. Space lasers.

What is the best solution to wildfires? ›

Forest Fire Prevention Tips
  • Obey local laws regarding open fires, including campfires.
  • Keep all flammable objects away from fire. ...
  • Have firefighting tools nearby and handy.
  • Never leave a fire unattended.
  • Carefully dispose of hot charcoal.
  • Drown all fires.
  • Carefully extinguish smoking materials.

How can we survive wildfires? ›

Close all windows and doors to • prevent sparks from blowing inside. Move fabric-covered furniture • away from large windows or sliding doors. Turn off equipment that • circulates air in the house. Gather your family, pets, a • cell phone, a fire extinguisher, a battery-powered radio and some bottled water.

When did Canada fires start? ›

The first wildfire in southwestern Nova Scotia started in Shelburne County on May 27, according to the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System, and has since spread over nearly 250 square kilometers (some 100 square miles) to become the largest wildfire in the province's recorded history.

How much of Canada is forest? ›

With almost 362 million hectares (ha), Canada ranks as the country with the third-largest forest area in the world. Much of this forest grows in the boreal zone. There, over 280 million ha of forest are interspersed with lakes, wetlands and other ecosystem types.

How do wildfires start? ›

How do wildfires start? Wildfires do sometimes occur naturally, either ignited by the sun's heat or a lightning strike. However, most wildfires are caused by human activities, including unattended campfires, discarded cigarettes, arson and more.

What was Smokey the Bear's famous quote? ›

It depicted a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire and saying “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 fires.” Smokey Bear soon became very popular as his image appeared on a variety of forest fire prevention materials. In 1947, his slogan became the familiar “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires!”

Who saved Smokey the Bear? ›

The park rangers at Capitan founded a tiny black bear cub in the fire and saw that he was severely burned. They rescued him and named him Smokey Bear. "[Forest ranger] Ray Bell ended up taking care of him for a little while," Smokey Bear Historical Park Ranger Wendy Boss told FOX Weather.

What is the biggest impact on a wildfire? ›

Harmful Effects of Wildfires

The most noticeable impact of wildfires is stormwater runoff. After the loss of vegetation, the ground's soil becomes hydrophobic and prevents the absorption of water.

How old is Smokey the Bear 2023? ›

Of course, the Smokey Bear campaign did not die in 1976. Smokey the icon turns 78 this year; and 78 more years from now, we will still face the threat of human-caused and unwanted wildfires. In fact, Smokey Bear and his message are more important than ever before.

Can I use Smokey the Bear? ›

The use of Smokey Bear is granted only on a non-exclusive basis. These agreements are fee based and are typically required for published works, short-duration projects, or uses of Smokey Bear that do not fall under commercial licensing.

Who can stop forest fires? ›

Firefighters control a fire's spread (or put it out) by removing one of the three ingredients fire needs to burn: heat, oxygen, or fuel. They remove heat by applying water or fire retardant on the ground (using pumps or special wildland fire engines) or by air (using helicopters/airplanes).

Did Smokey the Bear ever wear a shirt? ›

Originally shirtless when it was unveiled in 1954, Smokey has been part fire prevention and part dress-up doll for International Falls residents. He's been adorned in giant flannel shirts, hunting vests, fishing shirts, and countless other apparel that match various seasonal themes.

Is Smokey the Bear A Black Bear or grizzly bear? ›

KIND OF BEAR: American black bears live in the United States along with brown or grizzly bears and polar bears. CURRENT WEIGHT: 300 plus lb. Smokey has black bear relatives who weigh as much as 800 pounds. Some of his grizzly bear cousins weigh almost a ton!

Is the U.S. retiring Smokey the Bear? ›

After a long and successful career, Smokey Bear is retiring in an effort to change the way people think about fire.

Are fires increasing in the US? ›

The extent of area burned by wildfires each year appears to have increased since the 1980s.

Are house fires increasing? ›

Overall trends for residential building fires and losses for the 10-year period of 2012 to 2021 show the following: A 5% decrease in fires. An 8% increase in deaths.

How do you see fires on Google Earth? ›

There are different ways to find information about active wildfires on your map: Turn on the Wildfires layer: Tap Layers. the Wildfires button. Search for the fire: Enter a fire-related query into the Google Maps search box, such as “wildfires” or the name of an individual fire.

Can wildfires end naturally? ›

In order to put out a fire, fuel, heat, or oxygen must be removed. A good rain or a natural barrier can be enough for a wildfire to stop naturally. If this fails, a professional team of firefighters will step in to fight the fire, responding to many sides of the triangle simultaneously.

Are wildfires hard to stop? ›

The main reason wildfires can get out of control is quick spread and a lack of detection. Firewatch towers, aerial detection, and other methods are only so effective at identifying new fires on flammable land.

How long have wildfires existed on Earth? ›

Wildfire is first recorded in the Late Silurian fossil record, 420 million years ago, by fossils of charcoalified plants. Apart from a controversial gap in the Late Devonian, charcoal is present ever since.

What U.S. state has the most active wildfires? ›

Which state has the most wildfires? The state of California sees the most wildfires than any other state in the U.S. In 2021, over 2.5 million acres burned in the Golden State, as well as 3,629 structures. How often do wildfires occur?

What was the worst fire in U.S. history? ›

Forest and countryside fires
1910North Idaho and Western MontanaThe largest Fire in U.S. history burned an area the size of Connecticut (3,000,000 acres [12,000 km2]), killing 87 people, including 78 firefighters
July 29, 1916Six towns destroyed, two more damaged
October 12, 1918Minnesota
4 more rows

Which U.S. states have the most wildfires? ›

California is the most wildfire-prone state in the United States. In 2021, over 9,000 individual wildfires burned in the Southwestern state ravishing nearly 2.23 million acres. California accounted for roughly 31 percent of all acres burned due to wildland fires in the U.S.

What is the scariest fire in the world? ›

The Camp Fire remains the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. It is the most expensive natural disaster in the world in that year. Named after Camp Creek Road, its place of origin, the fire started on November 8, 2018, in Northern California's Butte County.

What is the No 1 source of fire? ›

Cooking is the leading cause of home fires in the United States, starting almost half of all fires. Heating is the second highest cause, followed by electrical systems/lighting equipment and intentional fires.

What was the biggest city fire in the US? ›

The Great Chicago Fire was a conflagration that burned in the American city of Chicago during October 8–10, 1871. The fire killed approximately 300 people, destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles (9 km2) of the city including over 17,000 structures, and left more than 100,000 residents homeless.

How common are fires in the US? ›

An average of 358,500 homes experience a structural fire each year (NFPA). More than 3,000 Americans die in fires each year (FEMA).

Where is the black fire burning? ›

New Mexico Sierra

What city is fire country in? ›

The series uses the nearby village of Fort Langley to portray the fictional Northern California town of Edgewater.

What are 90% of wildfires started by? ›

Humans cause nearly 90% of wildfires in the United states1 via discarded cigarettes, unattended campfires, burning debris, or through equipment malfunctions.

What's causing the fires in Canada? ›

Dry, hot weather also breeds more lightning. In a normal season, half of Canada's wildfires are started by lightning, but those fires account for more than 85% of wildfire destruction. The other half are human-caused. What might seem like slight increases in average temperatures have major consequences.

What is the main cause of wildfires in Canada? ›

Lightning is usually responsible for about half of all fires in Canada, and 85% of the area burnt each year.

What started the Canadian wildfires 2023? ›

The wildfires are believed to have been caused either by lightning, as in the case of Quebec, or accidentally by human activity.

Where did the Canadian wildfires start? ›

The wildfires started in the western provinces of British Columbia and Alberta and have spread to the eastern regions of Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario, Reuters reports.

Are wildfires increasing in Canada? ›

Canada has surpassed its record for the largest area burned by wildfires in a single year. The blazes have burned more than 8.1m hectares (20m acres) across the country - 21 times above the average over the last decade. There are currently 483 wildfires across Canada.

Why are wildfires happening? ›

Wildfires are unplanned fires that burn in forests, grasslands and other ecosystems, and they can start with a natural event like a lightning strike, or as the result of human activity. Campfires, discarded cigarettes, and electrical equipment like downed power lines all spark wildfires.

Who started most wildfires? ›

According to federal data cited by the National Park Service, humans cause about 85 percent of all wildfires yearly in the United States.

How big is the Canadian fire? ›

Canada is in the midst of a record-shattering fire season that has left more than 14m acres charred and stretched emergency resources to the limit – with months to go before the season ends.

Is the US sending firefighters to Canada? ›

The Biden administration is sending wildland firefighters to Canada to help try to control the blazes that have sent smoke across much of the eastern United States. But those firefighters face a big pay cut if Congress doesn't act soon.

Where do wildfires happen the most? ›

California, and other Western states of the US, are particularly prone to wildfire. The region's vegetation – pine needles, dry shrubs, and grasses – are more flammable than forests in other parts of the country, where moister trees, such as maple and beech, are found.

Are forest fires increasing? ›

The extent of area burned by wildfires each year appears to have increased since the 1980s.

How long can wildfires last? ›

Aside from the extended duration of fire season, fires are also lasting longer. According to Face the Facts USA, wildfires in the US before 1986 lasted an average of 8 days. In 2013, that average was 37 days. Fires are also burning up more acreage.


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