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Amid Unprecedented Wildfire Season, City Looks to Rebuild

As the acrid clouds of smoke that have blanketed eastern North America for the past week begin to ease, residents are starting to assess the damage and pick up the pieces in Halifax, Nova Scotia, near the epicenter of one of the first in a Canada-wide wave of wildfires.

More than 16,000 people were driven from their homes by a fire that reached into the suburbs of Halifax, a provincial capital and the largest city in eastern Canada. Several thousand still were without homes after the fire was brought under control, left to survey the smoldering ruins of what had been houses, cars and outbuildings.

Elsewhere in Canada, more than 400 fires continued to burn Friday across nine of the country's 10 provinces and in its far northern territories, scorching 40,000 square kilometers and issuing clouds of smoke that created eerie landscapes in cities from Canada's capital, Ottawa, as far south as Washington, D.C.

In Ottawa, residents warned one another to stay indoors as the sun punctured through the smoke as a glowing red orb.

With Canada's annual wildfire season just beginning, the amount of land burned already exceeds the total for all but three complete years. Experts told the Toronto Globe and Mail that the record for any single year will be broken by next week.

The conflagrations began late last month in the western province of Alberta, quickly followed by new outbreaks in the central province of Quebec, many of them attributed to lightning strikes.

While most of the fires have remained in remote forested regions, the human impact has been especially severe in Halifax, where the destruction reached into highly populated areas.

FILE - A man runs in front of the sun rising over the lower Manhattan skyline in Jersey City, NJ, amid the smoke from Canadian wildfires June 8, 2023.
FILE - A man runs in front of the sun rising over the lower Manhattan skyline in Jersey City, NJ, amid the smoke from Canadian wildfires June 8, 2023.

Thousands of people were displaced, and hundreds of homes were destroyed in the city's suburbs, leaving their occupants scrambling to find shelter in the midst of a severe housing shortage. The vacancy rate in Halifax fell to 1% in 2019 and has remained in that range or worse ever since.

Team Rubicon Canada, an offshoot of the U.S.-based charity Team Rubicon, said it is gearing up to help the city's residents to begin rebuilding their lives.

"Rubicon volunteers made up of veterans, first responders, and skilled civilians from across Canada will be assisting Halifax-area residents beginning the weekend of June 16th," said Helen Lialias, who works with the charity's Nova Scotia branch.She said the group's capabilities include "chainsaw operations, debris removal, heirloom recovery, incident management support and disaster mapping."

"We are already seeing one of the worst wildfire seasons on record and their devastating impacts on Canadians," Lialias added.

While wildfires are not unexpected in Canada at this time of year, the unprecedented severity of this year's blazes has many residents pointing the blame at global climate change.

"These fires are a terrifying harbinger of what we can expect as the effects of a warming planet are felt around the world," said Jo-Ann Roberts, a former interim leader of the Green Party of Canada, in an interview. "Fires, hurricanes, floods are now a part of life."

In addition to taking steps to combat climate change, Roberts said, the government should begin "redirecting training and equipment resources to build up military personnel who are ready to respond to fire, flood and wind disasters."