March 4th, 2024

Wildfire devastation voted Canadian Press news story of the year

By Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press on December 20, 2023.

The McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above houses in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

HALIFAX – It was the year unprecedented wildfires disrupted the lives of thousands from coast to coast, shattering records for the total area burned.

Canadian wildfires – which consumed an area roughly one-quarter the land mass of Manitoba – were by far the first choice for The Canadian Press news story of the year, as voted by editors in newsrooms across the country.

An unusually warm and dry winter in much of Canada set the stage for a wildfire season that led to 200,000 people fleeing their homes.

One of the first communities evacuated was Evansburg, a hamlet west of Edmonton, on April 29. Evacuation orders for other communities were issued in the following days.

On May 29, Nova Scotia’s fires spun out of control, in a fashion that experts said was an ominous signal for the rest of Canada. “If Halifax can burn, any place can burn, and that blows all our minds,” said John Vaillant, author of the award-winning “Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast.”

A heat dome and tinder-dry forests fed the blaze on the outskirts of the Nova Scotia capital. Homeowners, startled by the rapidity of the spread, encountered traffic jams attempting to flee their neighbourhoods.

On June 8, during debate in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “Canada is burning.”

And the impact was not confined within our borders. Quebec’s lightning-sparked wildfires made international news as the smoke travelled south, giving Toronto among the worst air quality in the world and forcing the cancellation of Major League Baseball games as far away as Washington, D.C.

Quebec’s forest fire prevention agency estimated that more than 700 fires burned about 51,000 square kilometres of land, more than the province had ever recorded in a single season.

Fires also ravaged the North. About 70 per cent of the population of the Northwest Territories were at some point displaced during the wildfire season. When flames threatened Yellowknife, the capital’s 20,000 residents were ordered out on Aug. 16. People waited in line at the airport for flights while others set off on marathon road trips to Alberta and other regions.

Flames came close but did not enter the city, and after three weeks, residents were allowed to return. The territorial election, less than a month away, was pushed to November.

Meanwhile, British Columbia also suffered its worst wildfire season on record, with about 400 homes destroyed and more than 2.8 million hectares burned.

Fires stoked by drought conditions and howling winds swept down late at night on West Kelowna on the shores of Okanagan Lake in mid-August, making it the centre of the unfolding emergency.

The fires caused tragic loss: six firefighters in B.C. died, including four killed in a road crash as they returned home from a two-week deployment.

And there were also stories of selflessness, including the efforts of volunteer firefighters such as Mark Zawidzki. He helped extinguish the flames approaching neighbours’ houses in a Halifax suburb as his own burned a few kilometres away. “I just wanted to save somebody else’s house while I could,” Zawidzki told The Canadian Press.

Thousands of Canadians suffered long-term economic loss, and began an exhausting odyssey of rebuilding their lives after everything from wedding photos to cars went up in flames.

“Typically, wildfire season has been isolated as a British Columbia problem with spillover into Alberta. But 2023 proved wildfires are now a national problem and a harbinger of Canada’s new normal,” said Dawn Walton, managing editor of CTV Calgary.

“Wildfires will intensify as climate change increases. It will soon become the biggest story in the land,” commented Richard Dooley, supervising producer of Global News in Nova Scotia.

Thirty-nine per cent of the 80 survey respondents chose wildfires as story of the year. Inflation was the second choice at 21 per cent.

As the year came to an end, the University of Waterloo’sIntact Centre on Climate Adaptation said the experience of 2023 will be repeated unless Canadian governments and citizens make significant investments in prevention.

“According to historical records, current wildfire seasons start roughly one week earlier and end one week later than 70 years ago,” the centre said in a report released Monday.

Matt Goerzen, managing editor of the Brandon Sun, noted that discussion of the wildfires reflected the sometimes divisive nature of the climate change debate in Canada.

“These discussions became overly heated during the summer of wildfires that claimed large swaths of Canadian forests, and forced an entire city, Yellowknife, to evacuate,” he wrote. “I fear we will only see more of these kinds of stories in the coming years.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2023.

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