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Experts raise concerns about 'zombie fires' burning beneath ground: 'We've seen this before, but never at this scale'

"I've never seen anything like this."

"I've never seen anything like this."

Photo Credit: iStock

Last year's devastating wildfire season in Canada is still leaving its mark, as a number of "zombie fires" still smolder underground.

What's happening?

Last year, Canada suffered a historic wildfire season, with the blazes burning around 45 million acres. To put this into perspective, this is an area roughly equal to the entire state of North Dakota, according to NASA.

Now, a new threat has emerged. More than 150 fires were still smoldering under the ground and snow as of late February, according to the Washington Post. These holdover fires, or "zombie fires," have been fueled by a warm and dry winter.

"We've seen this before but never at this scale," Michael Flannigan, a wildfire expert and professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, told the Post. "I've been watching fire in Canada and abroad since the late '70s. I've never seen anything like this."

Why are zombie fires concerning?

While Canadian authorities say the majority of these fires are under control, some experts are worried that the fires could spread this spring when winds pick up.

This could be a devastating blow for Canadians still recovering from last year's blazes, which not only affected air quality but also displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Plus, the zombie fires continue to diminish air quality. As they burn underground, they often consume peat (layers of compact organic matter) and spew out plumes of smoke.

Wildfires are picking up in frequency and intensity as global temperatures continue to rise. One example is the Smokehouse Creek Fire, which erupted in Texas in late February. The blaze, now confirmed to be the state's largest fire on record, burned more than 1 million acres in less than a week. Meanwhile, a number of other fires threatened the state as well.

Hawai'i faced a devastating wildfire of its own in August 2023. The event killed more than 100 people, per CNN, making it the most lethal wildfire in the last 100 years of U.S. history. The blaze also destroyed thousands of structures. Total damages are estimated as high as $6 billion.

What's being done about increased wildfires?

Scientists and builders are making some significant strides when it comes to creating more fire-resistant homes. 

For instance, one researcher at Texas A&M University has discovered a way to restrict the flammability of wood using an eco-friendly flame retardant

Meanwhile, a San Antonio-based company is returning to a thousands-year-old building method to create more sustainable homes that are hurricane- and fire-resistant

In Chile, they're piloting a fire-prevention program that teaches local residents methods to protect their homes, including creating a firebreak and soaking the ground with water when a fire is approaching. The training has paid off, as residents of one neighborhood in Quilpué survived a wildfire that destroyed the entire area around it. 

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