Zombie fires: What happens to fires that burn year round even under snow

Investigators and fire departments across Canada are working hard to find ways to put it out fires, rages for months, even years. Even in the frosty time of winter, in areas where the thermometer showed -40 degrees, smoke continued to emerge from under the snow.

Fire Chief Marty Wells had been seeing plumes of white smoke for months as he drove north from Fort Nelson in British Columbia. In some places, the fire is burning at a depth of more than 30 centimeters.

The smoke grew and turned into a fire of 700 square kilometers

When the snow melts in early May, these fires, often called “zombie” fires, rekindle and feed on dry twigs and leaves. Smoke visible north of Fort Nelson has turned into a 700 square kilometer fire.

The town is now at a standstill: to the east, another zombie fire has burned an even larger area, and to the west, a new fire is raging and destroying property 2.5 kilometers from the community. The territories have been vacated. Wells says he didn’t expect the development to be so bad. “It just so happened that day that we had really strong winds, so it went away.”

In 2023, “one Syria” burned

Canada’s boreal zone—a mix of forests and wetlands—makes up more than half of its land area. Fires burned an area – a record 185,000 square kilometers in 2023. This is to understand what we are talking about For an area the size of Syria. In western Canada, many of these fires are underground.

Much of Canada is in its third year of drought, with the western provinces of Alberta, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories hardest hit. There was very little snow and the big rivers turned into thin strips. This setting favored zombie fires in April and May.

With hot spots burning all around, northwest Alberta was forced to declare the start of fire season on February 20. Thompson Rivers University professor Mike Flanigan, who has been studying and tracking wildfires in British Columbia since the 1970s, says he’s never seen as many zombie fires as in recent years. “Things are extremely serious this year,” he warns. “Hundreds of thousands of hectares of land have already been burned by fires that survived throughout the winter.”

More … zombies

Scientists believe that zombie fires will become more frequent as a symptom of the climate crisis and global warming. As these increase, the fire season will start earlier and sooner – which means the atmosphere will also be increasingly loaded with carbon emissions.

Imperial College London is looking into the reasons. Everything points to dried peat. Peat is dark, moist soil formed when dead plant matter accumulates in watery, oxygen-depleted environments, such as the bogs of Canada, Russia, or Scotland. Because this substance cannot fully decompose, it is rich in carbon, making it a potentially potent fuel for zombie fires. How catastrophic it is depends only on how wet or dry it is. When the peat dries out, the situation can turn into a nightmare.

Burning peat

Burning peat requires a lot of water: firefighters pumped 7.5 billion liters of water from nearby lakes to extinguish a peat fire in North Carolina in 2008. Rhine and his colleagues have developed a suppressant that allows soap to block water. penetrates the microscopic pores of the soil and extinguishes peat 39% faster.

But many zombie fires are dozens of kilometers from the nearest town or road. Provinces allow them to burn as long as they don’t threaten a community, especially as the fire season lengthens and part-time firefighters become fewer. Scientists say the best way to prevent zombie fires is to drastically reduce climate-warming emissions.

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