British Columbia

Wildfire season starts early in B.C., raising fears about the summer to come

Wildfires have started two to three weeks early, the B.C. goverment says, and heat records are falling around the province.

Things could change, but parts of B.C. already have a high fire danger rating and snow is melting

Wildfire burning near Fort St. John, B.C. on Monday night. (Darcy Shawchek/Facebook)

It is still April, right?

Because with heat topping 25 C in Vancouver yesterday — higher than average for July — and dozens of fires burning in the Interior, it feels more like the height of summer.

The heat may put some into elated, shorts-and-sundresses territory, but it also brings on a certain dread: if this is April, can a summer of drought and smoke be far behind?

Even B.C.'s forest minister — describing how prepared crews are to fight the fires — admits this early start is not good.

"It's a concern to have it start this early," said Steve Thomson on Tuesday.

"Last night, as the information started to come in to me, it does give you that little churn in your stomach."

Burned trees near Baldonnel, in B.C.'s Peace River region, where 90 km/h winds and 28 C temperatures fueled wildfires Monday night. (Brett Hyde/CBC)

Wind + heat + little snow

To be clear, one crazy day — with 37 new fires started in the Prince George Fire Centre alone on Monday — does not tell us much about the coming fire season.

There were winds of up to 90 km/h in the Peace River area, spreading fire so quickly that Baldonnel hay farmer Cliff Bennett described a tractor barely able to outrun the flames last night.

But that bad combination, of high wind and 28 C temperatures, struck a part of the province that is already exceptionally dry — worse than Bennett said he'd seen in his 67 years.

"We didn't really get much snow last winter ... and it was really mild since Christmas, and so our snow melted really early," he told Gloria Macarenko on B.C. Almanac.

"It's just tinder, tinder dry."

Hay farmer Cliff Bennett, who was up until 1:30 a.m. PT fighting a fire near Baldonnel, B.C., said he hasn't seen anything like last night's fire activity in his 67 years. (Brett Hyde/CBC)

Already dry, weeks early

It's those underlying conditions, with "greatly diminished" low and mid-elevation snow packs across the province, that could spell trouble for this fire season, if dry weather persists.

The melt season is well underway — two to three weeks earlier than usual, the B.C. River Forecast Centre reported April 1.

And the wildfire season's first significant event has also hit two to three weeks earlier than it did in 2015, with dead grasses in lower elevations drying out quickly, Thomson said.

"We thought May was an early start last year," said UBC forestry professor Lori Daniels.

"We're coming off of an El Nino winter where there was not a lot of snow in most of the Interior of the province."

"We're seeing already evidence that our forests and our grasslands and our woodlands are already dry and primed for fire."

Parts of the B.C. Interior already have "high" or "very high" fire danger ratings, while large areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan are already rated "extreme," according to Natural Resources Canada.

The fire danger rating today (right) has already reached 'extreme' in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and 'very high' in parts of B.C, a sharp contrast to the same day last year (left). (Natural Resources Canada)

Summer of smoke, Part 2?

It's too early to say what this means for the long stretch of summer; a lot of rain from now until June could change the picture considerably, Thomson said.

But Environment Canada is forecasting that between now and June, there's an 80 to 90 per cent probability B.C. will be hotter than average.

For those who pay attention to climate change models, none of this is a surprise.

An earlier spring — and more common summer droughts — are both expected under climate change, said Daniels.

"These earlier springs that we've been seeing in the last decade are absolutely consistent with climate change projections for B.C."

So if you enjoyed the Martian yellow skies over Metro Vancouver last July — or the drought conditions that took South Coast reservoirs into "uncharted territory" last summer, you might get a repeat performance.

A summer of smoke could even become our new normal.

Smoke-filled skies from B.C. wildfires turned the skies of Vancouver an eerie dark colour on July 5, 2015. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)


Lisa Johnson

Senior writer and editor

Lisa Johnson is a senior writer and editor at CBC News. She helped create CBC Radio's What On Earth which won the 2021CJF Award for Climate Solutions Reporting. She has reported for CBC on TV, radio and online for more than 15 years with a specialty in science, nature, and the environment. Get in touch at or through Twitter at @lisasj.