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

Reflective number or design on hoodie. Police are seeking help in identifying three youth involved in an incident on Soderholm Road early June 12. Photo courtesy Campbell River RCMP
Do you know where your kids were at 1:24 a.m.?

Campbell River RCMP seeking help identifying three youths

John Hart Dam near Campbell River, B.C. BC Hydro photo
Campbell River watershed forecasts improve with rainfall

BC Hydro projects slightly higher resevoir levels and river flows after rainy May and June

North Island MLA Michele Babchuk. Photo contributed
COMMENTARY: MLA Michele Babchuk talks the future of forestry

‘These forests are important to every single one of us, myself included’

Heather Gordon Murphy (l-r) and Jan Wade, chair and executive director, respectively, of the Downtown Campbell River Business Improvement Association, are working to make the city’s core a safer and more welcoming place.
Downtown Campbell River BIA working to change perceptions

Downtown Campbell River BIA is establishing nighttime security patrols and targeting beautification

Carl Sweet (left) speaks with Rod Burns before the march from Logger Mike to MLA Michele Babchuk’s office in Campbell River. The men were from two different sides of the issue of old growth logging in B.C. Photo by Marc Kitteringham / Campbell River Mirror
VIDEO: Old growth forest counter-rallies converge on the streets of Campbell River

Pro-forestry and preserve old growth supporters argue and debate in front of MLA’s office

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: B.C. family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

A logging truck carries its load down the Elaho Valley near in Squamish, B.C. in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
Squamish Nation calls for old-growth logging moratorium in its territory

The nation says 44% of old-growth forests in its 6,900-square kilometre territory are protected while the rest remain at risk

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

Most Read