This is now Canada’s worst fire season in modern history as smoke fills skies

It’s been another mind-boggling stretch for fire in Canada, amid what has become the largest season in the modern record for the country, according to statistics compiled by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center.

In the seven days ending Sunday, more than 3.5 million acres (1.4 million hectares) burned, or 69 percent of an average full season in the country. This year’s tally of land burned is now up to 17.8 million acres (7.2 million hectares), surpassing the entire year of 1995 with 17.5 million acres (7.1 million hectares), for the biggest fire season in modern history for Canada.

The peak of typical Canadian wildfire season still lies ahead.

Under a sprawling heat dome in the east, conflagrations centered on Quebec unleashed their maddening fury, munching up boreal forest and delivering thick palls of smoke to those downwind — including those as far away as Europe. In Quebec alone, just shy of a million hectares has burned over the past week.

A prevailing story of this fire season is that angry infernos are spread across the country. Typical seasons in Canada tend to focus on one area, often the west, when it comes to the biggest blazes. The coast-to-coast nature of the current activity has made the fight incredibly fraught.

Early last week, powerful and slow-moving upper-level low pressure delivered rare heavy snowfall to high elevations of Alberta and British Columbia, while also bringing much-needed rain and some flooding to the prairies to the east. Moving into the weekend that just ended, that low pressure and rainfall departed, replaced by higher temperatures and a resumption of smoke production.

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While the west saw what is destined to be a painfully brief respite, a heat dome of high pressure flexed over the country’s kindling to the east. Under that heat dome, the only weather other than hot and dry is the occasional thunderstorm that tends to deliver more lightning than rain, potentially sparking new fires.

Given ideal conditions for fire, the region saw explosive growth in area burned over the past week. In Quebec, 2,444,488 (989,249 hectares) were added to the tally, while 361,245 acres (146,191 hectares) piled onto the total in Ontario.

Those two provinces have now seen 6.7 million acres (2.7 million hectares) and growing go up in smoke, surpassing the average year in the whole country by more than a half-million hectares.

As seen with recent smoke invasions in the Northeastern United States, and in other parts of the United States and Canada, the smoke produced by the boreal forest fires is incredibly dense and foreboding. Unlike many forest fires where flames tear through the tree crowns and move on, boreal forests burn as much at the ground level because of extensive flora as well as other biomasses like peat.

On Sunday, smoke from Canadian fires stretched across the Atlantic Ocean, with a relatively thick plume apparently on its way to parts of Europe.

Code Purple and Code Maroon air quality index values returned to much of eastern Canada in recent days. Under high pressure, smoke plumes have tended to hang around before being caught up in the normal mid-latitude westerly wind flow.

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Code Red (151+ AQI) begins the unhealthy level for general population, with Code Purple (201+ AQI) equal to very unhealthy and Code Maroon (301+ AQI) the worst of all, with hazardous conditions.

Despite the scarcity of official observation stations in Quebec and Ontario, daily peak values of 509 AQI were reported on Saturday.On Sunday, Code Red and Purple hourly observations were common from the international border region of the Great Lakes eastward to New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Looking at a time series of maximum 24-hour code from EPA, the recent spike in activity is plainly seen, even with very few locations to observe the smoke in eastern Canada. There have now been a number of extensive smoke episodes driving air quality deep into the unhealthy and hazardous zones.

The 509 AQI recorded Saturday was the highest of the stretch since these fires began in early May. Poor air quality is likely in many of the same regions over the next few days, while ahead of low pressure to the west. Some of the worst air may creep into New England late Monday into early Tuesday, as smoke also rotates southward on the back of the low across the Upper Midwest.

More smoke and fire to come

Other than the occasional passage of low pressure and attendant rainfall chances, the fire weather situation remains similar to recent conditions. In other words, warmer than normal and drier than normal rolls on for much of the country. Typically, Canada’s fire season is just kicking into gear for the months ahead.

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The greatest fire risk may return its focus to the west in the nearer term.

Already in recent days, the fires that were knocked back by weather including rain and snow have begun flaring again. High to extreme fire danger is forecast to expand in coverage from British Columbia through Alberta and the Northwest Territories, then increasingly eastward into Saskatchewan and beyond, according to Natural Resources Canada.

Rain chances rise for the time being in Ontario and Quebec. A slow-moving storm in the Great Lakes crawls toward the East Coast into midweek. On the northeast side, some rain will fall. It could be a soaking for parts of the region ablaze but will also probably lead to erratic fire behavior with changing winds.

This low-pressure area is already wrapping smoke into it from the north and then swirling in on its backside, which may continue in the days ahead. If it continues, it may ultimately deliver a round of smoke to the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, but rain in the source regions may also diminish the plumes for a time.

Longer-term forecast ideas show mostly above- to well-above-average temperatures from end to end of Canada. Heading into July, the government forecasts show fire danger coverage growing — in provinces from coast to coat — with high to extreme fire danger.

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