Zombie Fires Under the Snow, Raising Alarm for Canada’s Fire Season


Even amidst the depths of Canada’s winter, the remnants of the previous year’s unprecedented wildfire season persist. “Zombie fires,” burning stealthily under thick snow layers, are causing concern over the potential early onset of the summer wildfire season. These fires, particularly noticeable in and around Fort Nelson, British Columbia, emit visible and olfactory signals of their presence through white smoke clouds emanating from the ground.

Unseen Flames in the Heart of Winter

Local firefighter and scientist Sonja Leverkus describes an unusual snowstorm experience in Fort Nelson, where the snow appeared blueish-grey due to the smoke. This phenomenon continued into February, with smoke plumes visible even during extreme cold spells reaching -40°C.

Record Number of Overwintering Fires in British Columbia

British Columbia typically witnesses a handful of these overwintering or zombie fires each winter. However, January saw an alarming spike to 106 active cases. With 91 still burning, there’s growing concern about their potential to reignite post-snowmelt, potentially leading to an early start to the wildfire season. Alberta, too, reports a significant increase in these fires.

Implications for the Future: Early Wildfire Season Concerns

The continuation of these fires through winter is particularly troubling, following Canada’s record-breaking wildfire season last year. Over 18 million hectares were consumed by fire, marking a deadly and destructive period. Experts link the current surge in zombie fires to last year’s extensive wildfires and ongoing extreme drought conditions across British Columbia.

The Role of Climate Change in Increasing Fire Activity

The increase in zombie fires is attributed to climate change, leading to warmer conditions and more frequent droughts. This year’s El Nino weather pattern further exacerbates concerns, potentially setting the stage for an active and early wildfire season. While these fires are currently monitored and deemed not an immediate threat, the lack of snow or rain heading into spring could quickly change the situation, prompting early deployment of wildfire response teams.

As British Columbia faces an unusual and concerning start to 2024, the implications of these zombie fires, coupled with ongoing drought and the forecasted El Nino conditions, underscore the urgent need for preparedness and awareness in the face of evolving climate challenges.

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