Dr. Jeff Masters: Quebec Fire Second Largest in Record

July 14, 2013

The snow we saw at the top of the Greenland sheet last week was relatively fresh – there’s been a cold spell that delayed this year’s melting season somewhat, without too much evidence of black carbon soot. That may change as the melt season moves along.

Our samples were designed to focus on the melt layer from 2012, when record setting melt may have been accelerated by soot from wildfires like the one described here by Dr. Jeff Masters.

Dr. Jeff Masters – WeatherUnderground

A massive fire burning in northern Quebec is Canada’s second largest fire since fire records began in 1959, according to the Canadian Forest Service. The fire was more than twice the size of Rhode Island on Tuesday–1,621,000 acres. Called the Eastmain fire, the near-record blaze was ignited by lightning on May 25, and was burning along a 100-km front near the east shore of James Bay by the village of Eastmain. At times, the fire spread at 19 mph (30 kph). The fire cut power to Montreal’s subway system and to 10% of the population of Quebec (500,000 customers) on July 4, when smoke from the fire ionized the air by key hydroelectric power lines, causing a cascade failure.

Figure 1. On July 4, 2013, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image of wildfires burning in western Quebec near James Bay. Red outlines indicate hot spots where MODIS detected unusually warm surface temperatures associated with fire. The Eastmain fire, which became the 2nd largest fire since 1959 in Canada at 1.6 million acres, is at the upper left of the image, just east of James Bay. Other fires near Nemiscau, Quebec (about 150 – 200 km to the southeast of Eastmain) are also burning, but these patches are “only” 120,000 – 200,000 acres. MODIS also observed smoke from the fires moving across the Atlantic Ocean on July 5, July 6, and July 7. By July 8, smoke was drifting over Scandinavia. Image credit: NASA.

The largest fire in Canadian history was the 2,119,000 acre fire that burned in 1979 in the Northwest Territories. For comparison, the total acreage burned by wildfires in the U.S. as of July 4, 2013 was 1.9 million acres, so the Eastmain fire by itself has burned almost as large an area. The fire’s spread is being limited by the Opinaca Reservoir on its east, and by areas burned in 2002 to the south.

The fire spread rapidly last week into a patch along its northern and northeastern sides that burned in 1989 (click hereto see the very impressive spread of the fire between 16:45 UTC and 18:22 UTC last Thursday from the Suomi NPP VIIRS shortwave IR instrument; look on the northeastern front of the fire, which is inside the former 1989 fire patch–it spreads extraordinarily rapidly at approximately 10 mph.) While cool and relatively wet weather is expected in Quebec during the coming week, keeping fire danger low, there is speculation by some Canadian fire experts that the Eastmain fire will burn the entire summer unless there are a significant number of consecutive rainy days.

Canadian fire smoke reaches Europe
Smoke from this summer’s fires in Quebec have crossed the Atlantic and reached Scandanavia, according toScienceDaily.com. The smoke also passed over Greenland when the crowd source-funded DarkSnow Project was taking samples of the Greenland ice. The DarkSnow Project was designed to see if forest fires are significantly darkening the Greenland Ice Sheet, contributing to melt.

Climate change and fire suppression in Canada
Fire suppression policies are different in Canada than in the U.S. In areas where these fire are burning, there is no direct fire suppression unless fire is near villages and hydroelectric facilities. Nevertheless, fire suppression costs $500 million per year in Canada. “In areas with high timber or other values, a full fire-suppression response is used in attempts to control fires as quickly as possible. In areas with low values at risk to fire, a modified fire-suppression response, which attempts to control fires in a limited way, is usually used: isolated values threatened by fire are protected, or the fire is simply monitored. While only 5% of the fires detected during 1990–2004 received a modified response, they accounted for about 60% of the area burned ” (Hirsch et al., 2006.)

Fire suppression efficiency depends on many factors, including fire danger, the size at which the fire is attacked, and the number of fires already burning. According to Cummings (2005) and Martell and Sun (2008), fire suppression can significantly reduce area burned in boreal forests. Fire suppression can reduce area burned by means of initial attack, which reduces the number of large fires. Consequently, fire suppression agencies are efficient when the fire danger is low and when there is not that much fire already burning, a situation that will be less common in the near future. For Ontario, Podur and Wotton (2010) projected “a doubling of area burned in the Intensive and Measured fire management zones of Ontario by the decade of 2040, and an eightfold increase in area burned by the end of the 21st century” due to climate change (IPCC A2 scenario.) Fires that are too intense to control will overwhelm the fire management system and cause major increases in area burned.

Another study (Boulanger et al. 2013) predicted for 2040 in eastern Canada a 2.2- and 2.4-fold increase in the number of fires and the annual area burned, respectively, mostly as a result of an increase in extreme fire-weather normals and drought. As extreme fire danger would occur later in the fire season on average, the fire season would shift slightly later (5–20 days) in the summer. However, if broadleaf species become more common in this area as a result of climate change, this may offset the climate change impact on drought, as broadleaf trees are less flammable than coniferous trees (Girardin et al. 2013).


5 Responses to “Dr. Jeff Masters: Quebec Fire Second Largest in Record”

  1. MorinMoss Says:

    Toronto and surrounding areas were recently hit with record rainfall, getting about a month’s worth falling in a single day.
    Just the sort of downpour northern Quebec would need to have a chance of putting out this blaze.

  2. […] The snow we saw at the top of the Greenland sheet last week was relatively fresh – there's been a cold spell that delayed this year's melting season somewhat, without too much evidence of black car…  […]

  3. Peter,

    I am not sure where Jeff got this information, but I think it is actually the 3rd largest wildfire in history (since 1959 – see the data here: http://cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/firedata/data/lfdb/LFD_A02_5999_e.txt

    The largest wildfire occured in 1995, the second then was in 1979… otherwise excellent article,


    • MorinMoss Says:

      This is, by far, the largest ever wildfire in Quebec. All the previous gigantic ones have been elsewhere, usually in the Northwest Territories.

  4. @Morin Moss,

    yes, I understand that this might be the largest ever wildfire for Quebec, but Maters’s post talks about the whole Canada…

    “A massive fire burning in northern Quebec is Canada’s second largest fire since fire records began in 1959” – and in the case of Canada, it is the 3rd largest fire…


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