A forest fire burns late into the evening northeast of Prince Albert, Sask., on Monday, May 17, 2021. Fire conditions for Western Canada are a concern as the summer approaches, but everything depends on what kind of weather the next few months bring, experts say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kayle Neis

A forest fire burns late into the evening northeast of Prince Albert, Sask., on Monday, May 17, 2021. Fire conditions for Western Canada are a concern as the summer approaches, but everything depends on what kind of weather the next few months bring, experts say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kayle Neis

Canada may see more ‘zombie fires’ as climate warms and winters shorten

Blazes that continue to burn through the winter in Canada were once thought to be a myth but the so-called zombie fires may become more common, experts say

Blazes that continue to burn through the winter in Canada were once thought to be a myth, but the so-called zombie fires may become more common as temperatures get warmer and less snow falls, experts say.

Steven Cumming, an associate professor at Laval University’s department of wood and forest sciences, said those working in fire management had heard stories of the underground smouldering blazes over winter but there was no way of counting them until a recent study.

“All I know in Canada is that their existence has been reported more as a matter of folklore,” he said in an interview. “And what this paper does is give us some idea how often these things might be happening.”

The paper, published in the science journal Nature, said increasing summer temperatures associated with climate warming may promote the survival of overwintering fires in the future in the boreal regions. Blazes that burn over winter are also known as holdover or zombie fires.

Most of the fires are seen in the sub-Arctic, Arctic, Northwest Territories and the northern boreal forest in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan, where peat is found in vast amounts, the report said.

The Fort McMurray fire in Alberta and several fires in Northwest Territories were considered zombie fires.

James Waddington, a professor at McMaster University’s school of Earth, environment and society, said holdover fires come back to life from a previous season after smouldering under the snow.

“In some areas, a fire can come back to life and start being a flaming fire again,” he said.

“So, the idea that because it can come back without a new ignition source burning and smouldering all winter, we call that a zombie fire. The term zombie fire is relatively new.”

Hot summers lead to fires burning deeper in organic or peat soils, and are more likely to be detected the following spring, Waddington said.

“Perhaps they are becoming more common, but perhaps we’re also getting a little bit better at, well, hunting them down, to use the zombie terms.

“I would say we’re not at a stage of what I would call a zombie fire apocalypse, to use another zombie term, but I think it’s important because the scientists found that it was linked to hot summers.”

Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, said the holdover fires emit a lot more carbon on average than normal forest fires.

Peatlands are carbon reservoirs that have been building up over thousands of years, he said.

Burning one kilogram of peat emits about half a kilogram of carbon into that atmosphere, Flannigan noted.

“And the more carbon you have, the more warming you have, the more warming you have the more fire, so it’s a cycle.”

He said he would attribute most of the increase for the zombie fires, if not all, to a warming climate.

Canada is warming at twice the rate and the Arctic area is warming three times as fast as the rest of the world, Flannigan said.

“These fires that would normally have gone out in the winter or in the fall, burn right through until the following year,” he said.

“So, warming will lead to more zombie fires because of warmer, drier winters and less snow.”

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

forest fire

Just Posted

Steve Mann and Tim Hackett consider Marigold Lands their finest development. (Rendering courtesy Marigold Lands)
Marigold residences grow more townhouses and condos in Central Saanich

50 condos, 14 townhouses up next for project adjacent to Pat Bay Highway

The Pool at the Esquimalt Rec Centre. (Courtesy of theTownship of Esquimalt/ Facebook)
Esquimalt Rec Centre restarting everyone welcome swim times later this month

The 90-minute sessions will be on select evenings and weekends

Norman Mogensen sets up strings for his beans in his plot in the Oak Bay community gardens. (Christine van Reeuwyk/News Staff)
Oak Bay gardener spends decades cultivating, improving daddy’s beans

85-year-old vegan part of the community gardens scene

Theatre SKAM is offering mobile, pop-up performances to Greater Victoria residents once again this summer. They’ll feature emerging artists Yasmin D’Oshun, Courtney Crawford, Kaelan Bain and Kendra Bidwell (left to right). (Courtesy of Theatre SKAM)
Theatre performances can be ordered to Greater Victoria front yards this summer

Theatre SKAM offering mobile, pop-up performances once again

Diana Durrand and Arlene Nesbitt celebrate the new artist space in 2014. Gage Gallery moves this summer from Oak Bay to Bastion Square in Victoria. (Black Press Media file photo)
Gage Gallery moving to Bastion Square

Vivid Connections, a showcase by Laura Feeleus and Elizabeth Carefoot, opens new venue June 29

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Patrick O’Brien, a 75-year-old fisherman, went missing near Port Angeles Thursday evening. (Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)
Search for lost fisherman near Victoria suspended, U.S. Coast Guard says

The 75-year-old man was reported missing Thursday evening

Most Read