After repeated blasts of smoke last summer and one of the driest winters on record, Chicago enters the 2024 wildfire season with trepidation

After repeated blasts of thick and smelly wildfire smoke last summer and one of the warmest and driest winters on record, Chicagoans can be forgiven for anticipating the 2024 wildfire season with a sense of dread.

In fact, governments in both the United States and Canada say they’re correct to feel this way.

“The conditions are ripe for another bad fire season,” said John Mooney, air quality director for the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office in Chicago.

“The snowpack was down. The ice cover on the lakes was down. If the wind blows in the right direction, we’re going to get hit in the eastern half of the United States again,” Mooney said in an interview.

“We need to prepare for the worst,” he said, noting that significant wildfire risks exist in the northern forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Half a century after Congress passed the Clean Air Act, industrial, vehicular and power plant pollution remains a significant health threat in the Midwest, particularly in Black and brown communities.

In Chicago and other industrial towns, smoke from past wildfires and those that lie ahead will make the pre-existing pollution deadlier and harder to control.

The smoke will intensify EPA crackdowns on PM2.5, or small particle pollution, and nitrogen oxide, which helps form ground-level ozone.

These crackdowns, in turn, could slow economic growth.

While some experts don’t expect a repeat of the unprecedented eruption of wildfires in Canada last year, they’re still skittish about making predictions for 2024.

For one thing, they didn’t anticipate the extent of last year’s fires, either.

“Herein lies the problem with climate change,” said Zac Adelman, executive director of the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium, or LADCO.

“It’s blowing up our ability to forecast the weather.”

Adelman’s consortium coordinates air quality research and planning for Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio.

Public Safety Canada, which oversees that country’s homeland security, said that because of warm temperatures and a widespread winter drought, “we may be facing another catastrophic fire season.”

Canada exploded last year with 45.7 million acres burned, more than eight times the long-term annual average, according to Paul Pastelok, an AccuWeather meteorologist.

Smoke rises as a wildfire burns south of Lebel-sur-Quevillon, Quebec, July 5, 2023. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The fires blanketed the United States with smoke as far south as Virginia.

Pastelok predicts the Canadian total could drop to 12 million to 18 million acres this year.

Mooney said he puts little stock in forecasts that look much further than 48 hours into the future.

To add some spice to the mix, scientists will have to wait until Memorial Day to get an idea of how many of the 2023 fires that continue to burn beneath Canada’s boreal or northern forest will roar back to life on the surface.

And about a dozen of the Quebec fires that helped send smoke to the United States last year, including one that burned 2,000 acres, were  set by an arsonist.

Whatever the 2024 fire totals turn out to be, Chicagoans already have plenty of reason to be worried.