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

Starting in 2022, the Columbia Shuswap Regional District is extending dog control to the entire Electoral Area D area. (Stock photo)
Dog control bylaw passes in Shuswap area despite ‘threatening’ emails

CSRD board extending full dog control to Electoral Area D; director calls for respectful discussion

The new Civic Memorial Park will incorporate pieces of the 80-year-old arena it replaces. (Artists rendering)
Pieces of Civic Arena reclaimed for new Vernon park

City centre space to incorporate wood from the historic arena

Fruit farmers in the Okanagan and Creston valleys are in desperate need of cherry harvesters amid COVID-19 work shortages. (Photo: Unsplash/Abigail Miller)
‘Desperate’ need for workers at Okanagan cherry farms

Fruit farmers are worried they’ll have to abandon crops due to COVID-19 work shortages

A motorycle crash has been reported on Westside Road. (Google Maps)
UPDATE: Westside Road reopened following motorcycle crash near Vernon

AIM Roads advises drivers to expect delays due to congestion

An Armstrong family that lost their home to a fire on Wednesday still hasn’t found their cat as of Friday, June 18, 2021. (Facebook photo)
Family cat still missing, days after fire destroys Armstrong home

There were no injuries from Wednesday’s blaze, but two days later there’s still no sign of the white feline

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

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

Bruce Springsteen performs at the 13th annual Stand Up For Heroes benefit concert in support of the Bob Woodruff Foundation in New York on Nov. 4, 2019. (Greg Allen/Invision/AP)
Canadians who got AstraZeneca shot can now see ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

B.C. mayor David Screech who received his second AstraZeneca dose last week can now attend the show

New research suggests wolves can be steered away from the endangered caribou herds they prey on by making the man-made trails they use to hunt harder to move along. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Culling cutlines, not B.C. wolves, key to preserving caribou herds: researcher

The government has turned to killing hundreds of wolves in an effort to keep caribou around

Gary Abbott (left) and Louis De Jaeger were two of the organizers for the 2014 Spirit of the People Powwow in Chilliwack. Monday, June 21, 2021 is Indigenous Peoples Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of June 20 to 26

Indigenous Peoples Day, Take Your Dog to Work Day, Onion Rings Day all coming up this week

Gwen Spencer Hethey with her uncle and mentor Major Frederick Richardson. (Courtesy of Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame)
‘She was a killer’: The B.C. woman who pioneered female sharpshooting

Gwen Spencer Hethey made military men ‘look like turkeys’ says her son

Rita Coolidge played the main stage at Vancouver Island Musicfest in 2017. (Black Press file photo)
This year’s Vancouver Island MusicFest to virtually showcase beauty of Comox Valley

Returning July 9 through 11 with more than 25 hours of music performances

Most Read