Firefighters have been dealing with an impressive number of wildfires for 10 days. At least 166 fires have been recorded since the start of the season and 100% of them have been caused by human activity. This warm spring comes as researchers from McGill University reveal that exposure to wildfires increases the risk of cancer.

The Society for the Protection of Forests against Fire (SOPFEU) already has 61 more fires than the average. Fifteen forest fires were still active at the time of this writing.

“We are above average, but we are not talking about a record”, nuance Stéphane Caron, prevention and communications coordinator for SOPFEU.

“If we look over several years, we see that […] it’s above average, but it’s not exceptional. But we’re still talking about a strong spring so far,” he said.

Last Saturday, the Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks banned open fires in or near forests in southern and western Quebec. The ban was extended on Tuesday to almost all regions of the province.

The SOPFEU spokesperson speaks of a “perfect cocktail” for starting forest fires.

The 169 fires were all started by humans, most often by burning rubbish or cigarette butts, reports SOPFEU. The majority were quickly brought under control and extinguished within 48 hours. The blazes burned 177 hectares of forest.

“As long as there is no rain, it will not improve,” underlines Mr. Caron.

The number of wildfires, higher than usual, is not reassuring, especially since a study by McGill University has just shown that people who are exposed to forest fires are more likely to develop lung cancer or brain tumours.

The researchers, who observed 2 million Canadians over 20 years, found that people who lived within 50 kilometers of wildfires in the past 10 years had a 10% higher rate of brain tumors than people living further away. Lung cancer rates were 4.9% higher among people exposed to wildfires. The results of the study were published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal last week.

“The problem with wildfires is that they don’t just pollute the air. They also pollute water and soil. Contact with these pollutants can continue even after a fire has been extinguished,” says Scott Weichenthal, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health at McGill University.

The researcher and his colleague Jill Korsiak, the doctoral student who led the analysis, say they are concerned because the fires often start in the same places. “Residents in these regions could experience chronic exposure to carcinogenic pollutants,” says Professor Weichenthal.

Stéphane Caron, of SOPFEU, confirms that fires are more frequent in the Outaouais, in the Laurentians and in Montérégie, in the spring. Conversely, they are rarer in the Quebec region or in Charlevoix.

“There are all kinds of phenomena that explain this, including the type of forest. Hardwood forests are less vulnerable because the leaves, when emerged, retain moisture. Softwood forests, which are found more in northern Quebec, are more vulnerable because there are a lot of thorns and resin there. Resin is an accelerant for the fire,” notes Mr. Caron.

“There is also the weather phenomenon. There are lightning corridors that are typical in Quebec. Lightning generates forest fires,” he adds, insisting that fires can occur in any region.

Professor Weichenthal reminds that forest fires are likely to become more frequent, more intense and longer with climate change. So, is it better to live near a fire-prone forest or in the city, in urban pollution? The answer will have to be the subject of another study, Mr. Weichenthal replies, a smile in his voice.


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