MONTREAL — Canada surpassed the record for area burned by wildfires in a single year Monday as hundreds of fires continued to blaze in almost every province and territory.

The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre reported Monday afternoon that 76,129 square kilometres of forest and other land have burned since Jan. 1. That exceeds the previous record set in 1989 of 75,596 square kilometres, according to the National Forestry Database.

Last week, federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said he wasn’t "looking to break any records" but acknowledged it was likely coming. "Unfortunately, the fire season this year started earlier and has been more widespread across the country than in recent memory," he said.

It took less than six months to surpass the previous record for an entire year. And in 1989, more than 11,000 different fires combined to create the total, with an average size of about seven square kilometres. This year, there have been less than 3,000 fires so far, but they have averaged about 26 square kilometres in size.

Currently, there are 490 fires burning nationally, with 255 of them considered to be out of control.

In Quebec, where nearly a quarter of the fires are burning, heavy smoke grounded water bombers in the province's north Monday and caused widespread smog warnings farther south.

Nicolas Vigneault, a spokesperson for the province's forest fire prevention agency, said the smoke had reduced visibility, making it impossible for some water bombers and helicopters to take off.

"We do as (many) operations as we can in the field with the firefighters, and in the air with the planes and helicopters," he said. "But our priority is the security of everybody, and the smoke is a challenge right now, and it's been a challenge over the last two or three days."

However, he said heavy rain and some wind is expected in the most affected parts of the province in the coming days, which should allow operations to resume "almost normally."

The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre says 76,129 square kilometres of forest and other land have burned since Jan. 1. That exceeds the previous record set in 1989 of 75,596 square kilometres, according to the National Forestry Database.

While no towns are under immediate risk of burning, the fires have forced thousands of Quebecers from their homes. That includes the 2,000 residents of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, parts of Val-d'Or and Senneterre and some Indigenous communities.

In a Monday afternoon update, the fire prevention agency said the fire burning near Lebel-sur-Quévillon remained out of control and had grown to more than 4,400 square kilometres.

"Again yesterday, the lack of visibility for our aircraft had an impact on fire suppression operations" at the Lebel-sur-Quévillon fire, the agency wrote on its Facebook page. "We did some tests, but no plane or helicopter could complete a mission due to the dense smoke."

It said "significant" rain was expected in the northwest of the province beginning late Monday or Tuesday, but strong winds ahead of the wet weather could make fire conditions challenging.

The Cree Nation of Mistissini announced late Sunday that it was asking all remaining community members to evacuate the area due to a fire threatening nearby Highway 167.

"The dryness index is 100, the highest that can be recorded, and the intensity of the fire is really high," read one of a series of posts on the community's Facebook page.

Authorities noted that the forest fire agency was unable to get images of the fire due to low visibility, which made it hard to track its progress. A plan was in the works to protect the community by widening firebreaks, bringing in water tankers to combat spot fires and putting sprinklers at the entrance to the community.

Meanwhile, heavy smoke forced the Cree community of Waswanipi to announce plans to evacuate another 50 residents, including seniors, pregnant women and infants under one.

In a video update late Sunday, Chief Irene Neeposh asked residents who remained in the community to keep their children inside, keep their doors and windows closed and wear a proper-fitting mask while outside.

"We are strongly, I repeat strongly, advising that you do not let your children play outside," she said. "The smoke being this dense is extremely toxic."

There was better news in three small communities near the Ontario border, where officials said the more than 300 residents of Val-Paradis, Beaucanton and Lac Pajegasque could go home after being forced to leave on Friday.

The Atikamekw of Opitciwan, about 600 kilometres north of Montreal, also announced that residents of the area who had been evacuated would be allowed to return on Tuesday.

Environment Canada issued smog warnings for much of the province, including Montreal and Quebec City, due to poor air quality caused by fine particles in the air. The department also issued special weather statements for many of those same cities, forecasting 20 to 40 millimetres of rain in some areas, with more than 50 mm possible in thunderstorms.

By late afternoon, the smog warnings had been lifted for the south of the province between Quebec City and Montreal, though they remained in place in the Gatineau region near Ottawa, the Abitibi region in the northwest and the Lac-St-Jean region north of Quebec City.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 26, 2023.

— With files from Mia Rabson in Ottawa

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said messages to the Cree communities of Mistissini and Waswanipi were issued Saturday.

Keep reading

Al Beaver wrote the following. I thought it was brilliant!

"Fire response does not create “Public Value”. If applied intelligently it can reduce public value loss, but there are tight margins.

The costs of fire response/suppression is funded largely from the public treasury. The same treasury that funds schools, hospitals, law enforcement, public infrastructure, etc. All of which create public value.

Fire response is therefore conducted at the opportunity cost to these public value producing programs. Plus, much of the Wild-land Urban Interface (WUI) risk and therefore the risk controls are in private ownership. And it gets worse, in fire-adapted/dependant ecosystems, without a fire disturbance offset (fuel management) the best that can be achieved is fire postponement. So, the cost of all the successful initial attacks we like to brag about needs to be included in the accounting along with the large fire that wipes them out. Do the accounting and do it properly.

Also a factor is the high number of poorly located and designed communities and subdivisions. Plus the poorly constructed and maintained properties within those communities and subdivisions. Without a vulnerable value, a risk doesn't exist. Risk = Value x Vulnerability x Exposure x Likelihood x Severity."

A very relevant comment.

Adaptation to climate heating includes efficacious urbanism, which again includes good quality planning for the urban-forest edge interface.

The Okanagan Mountain fire of 2013 destroyed over 200 suburban Kelowna, BC, houses, all single family homes with perfectly combustible exterior materials in sprawling subdivisions carved from the forest with no fire gap. Firefighters were required to travel farther to try to save fewer homes. Residents also had longer distances to travel to escape.

Since then BC had the record breaking heat dome that caused over 600 deaths in June 2021 and innumerable smoke choked days. Most of those deaths took place in poorly ventilated or cooled buildings where seniors live.

Next time you encounter a dinosaur spouting climate denial, one effective response is to ask them what the insurance industry thinks about climate change.