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Less than a year after hurricane Fiona caused widespread damage in Atlantic Canada and became the most costly extreme weather event ever recorded in the province, Nova Scotia is seeing an early and destructive wildfire season.

Nova Scotia has joined the growing list of provinces experiencing catastrophic forest fires in 2023. The Maritime province has already had more fires this year than during all of 2022. More than 16,000 people have been evacuated, an estimated 200 homes and structures have been destroyed or damaged, and while the exact cause of the current fires isn’t known, climate change is at least partly to blame, said Karen McKendry, senior wilderness outreach co-ordinator at the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre.

The impacts the current fires are having on people and their homes are top of mind for McKendry. However, she’s also thinking about how increased temperatures and a slew of other climate and other impacts are playing a role in the uptick of wildfires.

“People haven't always, on a national scale, been thinking about Nova Scotia and wildfires… What dominates the consciousness, rightly so in Canada, is what's happening out West,” she said.

“But with a warming climate and some drier seasons, this is going to become more common in Nova Scotia. So more fires, more widespread fires, more destructive fires from a human perspective as well.”

An extinguished area of fire in Tantallon, Nova Scotia. Photo courtesy of Communications Nova Scotia

In addition to climate change fuelling rising temperatures and sometimes dryer weather, it also means more extreme weather events, such as hurricane Fiona, which have an indirect impact on wildfires.

“Fires in areas where hurricane Fiona downed trees have the potential to move faster and burn more intensely, making them potentially more difficult to contain and control. At this time, needles, twigs, leaves, etc., support fire ignition and spread,” the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables (DNRR) said in a statement on Friday.

“With high winds, the spread can be rapid and intense. However, DNRR has experience in managing wildfires in hurricane-damaged forests.”

Nova Scotia is facing an early and destructive wildfire season, prompting thousands of evacuations over the weekend. The province has already had more fires this year than all of 2022 and the upcoming week is forecast to be dry.

While downed trees from hurricanes are a stressor, along with climate change in general, McKendry says it’s also about “other ways that we're interacting with our forests.”

She notes there are many roads that have been built going “deep into our forests” along with forest harvester pathways, allowing people access, and therefore opportunity, to accidentally start fires. Also notable are wetlands, said McKendry, because they can act as natural fire breaks. However, she said the province has been “emptying our urban areas of wetlands.”

“Fire has always been a part of Nova Scotia's ecology, but sometimes large wetlands were the areas where fires stopped. You can see this in the 2009 Spryfield fires. I live right near Spryfield. I experienced that fire. You can still go to the backlands today and see all the charred trees this many years later,” she said.

“You can also see right where the fire stopped; sometimes it stopped right at the edge of a wetland. By taking out wetlands from our urban environment, we've also been taking out fire breaks.”

‘Unprecedented fire response’

On Sunday, a wildfire prompted more than 16,000 people to be evacuated from their homes in Hammonds Plains, Upper Tantallon and Pockwock, which are suburban communities about 25 kilometres away from Halifax. The fire is now around 788 hectares in size and has destroyed a dozen structures, the province said Monday.

“Obviously, the impacts on the community are enormous, but it is encouraging that we don’t have growth on that one and we hope crews can maintain it through the week,” said Scott Tingley, a manager with the DNRR.

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said the area is seeing an “unprecedented fire response.”

In Shelburne County, around 240 kilometres west of Halifax, a wildfire has been burning since Friday and is now at more than 9,000 hectares. A total of 450 homes have evacuated, reports the CBC. On that fire, the department said it will continue to face challenges while containing it.

Before the weekend’s fires, DNRR told Canada’s National Observer there had been 168 wildfires in 2023, compared to 153 throughout all of 2022. The department noted that most fires are caused by human activity and just five per cent by lightning strikes. In British Columbia, lightning and “a rare chance of other natural causes” are the root of 60 per cent of fires, compared to human activity starting around 40 per cent.

The spring has been especially dry in Nova Scotia and the weekend especially windy, which the province said both contributed to the fires. The upcoming week is also set to be dry, and Tingley said it is “not favourable” for officials fighting the fires.

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