Although wildfire season in Canada usually begins in early May, when the snow begins to melt and uncover dead vegetation that can become fuel for fires, more than 100 wildland fires have already begun raging across western Canada this month. Roughly a million acres have burned, and more than 29,000 people in Alberta and British Columbia were forced to evacuate their homes.
According to local experts, this type of “ferocious” wildfire activity isn’t typical this early in the year, and firefighters don’t normally see such a large area burned at once. Additionally, a news release issued by the government of Alberta stated the region is experiencing unusually hot, dry conditions this spring, which makes it an ideal environment for fires to spread. A provincial state of emergency in Alberta was declared on May 6, 2023.
Alberta has been hit hardest by the wildfires, and as of today, May 11, there are 82 actively burning in the province, 23 of which are out of control. In total, Alberta alone has seen 426 wildfires so far this year. In neighboring British Columbia, there have been 179 fires so far this year. Of those, 46 are actively burning, 8 of which are out of control.
Additionally, the fires were so intense that satellite imagery captured the formation of a pyrocumulonimbus (PyroCb) cloud southeast of Edson, Alberta on May 4. This is a type of thundercloud created by intense heat and smoke. Data from the GOES West satellite also suggested that the temperature at the top of the cloud was colder than -60º Celsius, close to the temperature of the tropopause, or the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere. Thus, this PyroCb cloud may have injected smoke and other material into the lower stratosphere.
On May 8, cooler weather and scattered showers arrived in the area, which has been helping firefighters battle the flames in areas they hadn’t been previously able to access. Despite their efforts, huge amounts of smoke have traveled across Canada and even caused a haze over parts of the northeastern and mid-Atlantic U.S. beginning on Monday, May 8.
NOAA’s geostationary satellites provide timely and potentially life-saving information in a dynamic fire environment. GOES East and GOES West frequently detect fires before they are spotted on the ground, which is particularly important in remote areas. The satellites also track fires in real-time, identify and track smoke, and determine a fire’s size and temperature.
The Joint Polar Satellite System’s NOAA-20 and Suomi NPP satellites play an important role in detecting and tracking wildfires, especially in remote regions. Their high spatial resolution imager detects smaller and lower-temperature fires and also provides nighttime fire detection. The data from these satellites is also critical to smoke models used by fire crews, first responders, and air traffic controllers.