The Current

Fire-driven weather is 'new reality' for Canada and elsewhere, expert cautions

An evacuation order remains in place for High Level, Alta., as a wildfire rages south of the town. We hear from some of the people living in limbo, and examine a phenomenon you might not have heard of: the 'firenado.'

'It's kind of like a Game of Thrones. You don't know where the dragon is going to be exhaling next'

Storm clouds that suck up flames, dirt and smoke from wildfires and deposit them elsewhere, also known as 'firenados,' could become a new weather reality, according to Ed Sruzik. (CBC News)
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Springtime has become synonymous with wildfire season in many parts of Canada, and it's time the preparation and damage control reflected this, says Ed Struzik.

Our changing climate is directly impacting the frequency and intensity of wildfires, and it's important that Canada's approach to combating these blazes — and their resulting weather systems — is re-visited, he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"Our traditional response to wildfire is not going to be good enough in the future," the author of Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future said.

Struzik, who is also a fellow at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen's University, spoke with Tremonti about the devastating wildfire south of High Level, Alta., that has led to the evacuation of about 5,000 people, and what the future of wildfires looks like.

Here is part of their conversation.

Residents in High Level, Alta., are preparing to leave their homes following an evacuation alert. (Deb Stecyk)

What worries you about what's going on around High Level right now?  

Well this is not the new normal, but it's the new reality. We saw it in B.C. in the last two years, and Alberta the year before, Waterton National Park. Ontario got hit hard last year.

I think this is what we're going to be seeing more of every summer.

And as the fires burn bigger and hotter we're also seeing a real change in weather systems. There's something called the firenado. What do you know about that? 

Ed Struzik is an environmental writer and photographer. (Ed Struzik/Twitter)

What we're seeing now is these pyroCbs [pyrocumulonimbus clouds], these fire-driven thunderstorms on the landscape. There was an astonishing four that occurred in 2017 in B.C., and one simultaneously in neighbouring Washington. And I was talking to people from the U.S. naval defence lab in Washington, D.C., who've been watching this along with people from NASA and other people from around the world, and they were just stunned to see that kind of fire-weather activity

It happened not only in B.C. It happened in Texas last year. It's happened in Portugal. It's happened in South America and South Africa. We're starting to see these major, major weather events, fire-weather events, spreading around the world. And that is throwing everybody for a loop. That's spinning heads.

So there've been forest fires before but why do they create a weather system like that with lightning storms?  

They're just so hot that they just suck up all of the moisture, and it's essentially like a classic thunderstorm that you have when it gets very hot and humid and it sucks up all the moisture and the heat and then raises it up, creates these pyrocumulus clouds, except there's a lot of carbon and dirty material that it's sucking up from the ground that's been burning. And so they sometimes call that the 'dirty thunderstorm' but it can also create lightning. 

Dramatic video from southern California shows a fiery tornado — or "firenado" — swirling on the scorched countryside near the community of Phelan in August, 2016.

Swirling column of flame moves slowly towards highway 1:02

For example in 2016 we saw one of these pyroCb events ignite a cluster of fire more than 30 kilometres away from the fire's front. And how do you deal with that if you're a firefighter? I mean it's kind of like a Game of Thrones. You don't know where the dragon is going to be exhaling next. And I think that's what we have to start dealing with. This is the new reality, and our traditional response to wildfire is not going to be good enough in the future.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Q&A edited for length and clarity. Written by Émilie Quesnel, produced by Julie Crysler, Julianne Hazlewood and Danielle Carr.

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