“Never before seen”, “exceptional in scale, duration”, “immense consequences in the long term”: when scientists look at the figures to take stock of fire season in Canada, they struggle to keep up; find the right superlatives.
“It's simple: we've shattered all the records on a Canadian scale,” said, shaken, Yan Boulanger, researcher for the Canadian Ministry of Natural Resources.
He There have never been so many areas burned (18 million hectares, 6,400 fires), people evacuated (more than 200,000), provinces affected, megafires…
“It’s an impressive wake-up call because we didn’t necessarily expect it so quickly,” this forest fire specialist explains to AFP.
In Quebec, a very hard-hit province and less accustomed than the West to very large-scale infernos, the shock wave was immense, particularly in the remote region of Abitibi-Témiscamingue, where the forestry industry is crucial.
No more leaves on the branches, blackened trunks and charred roots: in one of its black spruce forests, the queens of the boreal forest, only a few tufts of moss resisted the onslaught of the flames in June.
“There is little chance that this forest will be able to regenerate, the trees are too young to have had time to form cones which ensure the next generation”, estimates Maxence Martin, professor of forest ecology at the University of Quebec in Abitibi-Témiscamingue.
– A third of a lost forest –
Record surface area burned in Canada © AFP – Jonathan WALTER, Valentina BRESCHI
Faced with this alarming assessment and “if we continue on the current trend, by 2100, it is probably a third of the boreal forest that we will have lost in Quebec”, adds this enthusiast, slaloming among the young people green regrowth appearing on the burned ground.
Yet this ring of greenery, the largest expanse of wilderness in the world, encircles the Arctic – from Canada through Alaska, Siberia and north of Europe – is vital for the future of the planet.
Fires there are fueled by drier and hotter conditions caused by climate change. And by releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, these fires in turn contribute to global warming, in a vicious circle.
Another particularity of this northern forest: it releases 10 to 20 times more carbon per unit of burned area than other ecosystems.
Trees burned near Lebel-sur-Quévillon, a small Quebec town evacuated twice during summer, September 21, 2023 © AFP – Marion THIBAUT
With the fires, Canadian emissions reached unprecedented levels this year (473 megatons of carbon), more than three times higher than the previous record, according to data from the European Copernicus observatory.
And in the forest boreal, due to the thickness of the humus on the ground, fires can continue to burn underground for months.
“As we explained to people that the fires would only really be extinguished with snow, everyone dreams of seeing winter arrive,” smiles Guy Lafrenière, mayor of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, a Quebec commune of 2,000 inhabitants which had to evacuate twice in June.
The forestry industry is working to collect as much wood as possible burned during the summer before it is too late, here in Lebel-sur-Quévillon in Quebec , September 21, 2023 © AFP – Mathiew LEISER
The homes were saved from the flames thanks in particular to a lake which stopped the advance of the fire. But the whole summer was disrupted, no child finished their school year and hundreds of small chalets built in the forest were destroyed.
Today, the town is surrounded by cut trenches. -fire, created to counter the advance of walls of flame, by removing coniferous trees, which are very flammable.
“The machines cut down the trees and we had a helicopter to water them at the same time so that they did not catch fire,” recalls the mayor, who now wants to see the city surrounded by deciduous trees, much less flammable, so that They serve as a barrier.
– Overwhelmed –
For months, a large part of Canada, including the Far North, has been affected by an acute drought. It often took just one day of lightning to trigger hundreds of fires at the same time, overwhelming firefighters and authorities and overwhelming residents.
Megafires © ; AFP – Sophie RAMIS, Helena GISBERT SANCHEZ
“People had five minutes to get out of their homes and leave. It was intense and stressful, especially since there was a lot of smoke and the flames were very close” , says Doris Nolet, head of the volunteer fire brigade of Normétal, another evacuated Quebec village.
The latter, who manages a team of 20 people, was very afraid for her “guys”. “It was the first time that we were confronted with forest fires. We are trained for house and car fires,” continues this little woman with piercing blue eyes.
This year, almost all Canadians have been affected by this fire season, directly or because they have breathed smoke from the fires which have traveled thousands of kilometers, also repeatedly polluting the air in some parts of the country. of the northern United States.
“We need to think hard.” It's not Europe here, we don't have the means to fight all the fires, they are too big, too inaccessible so we have to be proactive”, explains Marc-André Parisien.
For this researcher specializing in fire risk management, these megafires have not finished haunting Canadians.
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