‘It’s Like Our Country Exploded’: Canada’s Year of Fire

But the smoke finds you almost wherever you are. This year, toxic air from Canadian fires spread as far as the lungs of those living in Nuuk, Greenland, where there was darkness at noon in the capital in late September, and of those in Spain and Britain, who choked on Canadian ash in June. When the smoke from fires in eastern Canada spread south into the United States, parts of the Midwest and Northeast registered the worst air-quality readings anywhere in the world.

Carbon travels, too, upward into the atmosphere, where much of it will hang, effectively forever. This year, an estimated two billion tons of carbon dioxide were released by Canadian fires, roughly three times as much as was produced by the whole rest of the country, which boasts one of the world’s more conspicuous carbon footprints — three times as much as all of its cars and trucks and other transportation modes, its fossil-fuel industry and power plants and its infrastructure, agriculture and manufacturing.

In fact, here is a list of countries that, all together, have a smaller carbon footprint than this year’s Canadian fires: Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, the Bahamas, Bahrain, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brunei, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, East Timor, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Estonia, Estwatini, Ethiopia, Fiji, Finland, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Ghana, Greece, Greenland, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Jordan, Kenya, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Latvia, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malawi, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, North Korea, North Macedonia, Norway, Palau, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sudan, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Western Sahara, Yemen, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Try to read every country on that list. The Canadian fires have released more carbon than all of them combined, much of it coming from remote regions of forest where fire control and suppression would be simply impractical even if it wasn’t also, for reasons of forest ecology, inadvisable.

Fire people don’t just talk about new scale, though, but new kind, with fires also releasing new weather: fire wind, fire whirls, fire tornadoes and fire thunderstorms, those last produced by pyrocumulonimbus clouds, or pyroCbs, which can reach 200 miles wide and stretch high into the atmosphere, carrying anything that’s burned upward, and which can produce thousands of new strikes of what is called pyrogenic lightning, igniting potentially dozens of new fires anywhere within a 50-mile radius of the cloud. Once thought to be produced only by volcanic activity, wildfire pyroCbs were observed for the first time in 1998. The previous global record for pyroCbs in a single year was 102, recorded in 2021, when Canada also set a national record with 52 of them. This year, the country has had 142 of them — almost 50 percent more in one country than the world as a whole had ever experienced in a single year before.

In 2016, the fire that tore through Fort McMurray jumped the Athabasca River — one of the region’s iconic waterways and long regarded as one of Alberta’s great natural fire breaks. This year, fires jumped Okanagan Lake — probably two miles clear across open water, individual embers the size of fists giving off enough heat that they were picked up by NASA satellites.

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