British Columbia

As far as B.C. wildfire forecasters are concerned, June did what they hoped

Environment Canada and the B.C. Wildfire Service agree the cooler, wetter weather has been the biggest factor in the delay to the start of the province's wildfire season, buying officials more time to prepare.

Conditions can still change quickly to create fire danger, despite current low risk: service

The Gilpin Creek wildfire, which started near Grand Forks, B.C., on June 23, was unable to spread from the point of ignition ⁠— this tree, struck by lightning ⁠— because the surrounding vegetation was wet enough to stop the flames. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

It only takes a quick glance at British Columbia's fire danger map to see the province is in good shape.

The vast majority of the province is covered in lime green and cool blue, indicating the risk of a wildfire starting in those areas is "low" or "very low." Patches of land on the coast are marked as a "moderate" risk, but the blaring red of extreme risk is absent.

A damp, chilly June can take most of the credit.

"This month delivered," said Armel Castellan, warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada.

"When you look at it from a drought and from a wildfire perspective, you couldn't ask for better."

The fire danger rating for the province as of July 5, 2020. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

The weather agency and the B.C. Wildfire Service agree the cooler, wetter weather has been the biggest factor in the delay to the start of the province's wildfire season, buying officials more time to prepare for a season that could prove more difficult when combined with the complications of a pandemic.

Castellan said some places in B.C. saw "upwards of 140 per cent" of their normal precipitation in June, particularly in northern B.C.

⁠Prince George had 92 millimetres of rain compared to its usual 65, while Chetwynd had 101 millimetres compared to the typical 76. 

Many cities, from Smithers to Abbotsford, saw temperatures around a degree-and-a-half cooler than usual.

"That's good news when you look at it through the wildfire lens," said Castellan.

The B.C. Wildfire Service has long said a soggy month of June is the key to keeping the forest fire risk low throughout July and August.

"We're always monitoring, of course, because things could change, but at the present time there aren't any concerns [about fire risk]," said Taylor Colman, fire information officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service.

The service said there had been 187 wildfires this season as of Friday, leaving 672 hectares of land burned.

That's 35 per cent fewer fires than B.C. had seen by the same date in 2017, with 289 fires tearing through 1,752 hectares. 

A wildfire burns on a mountain east of Cache Creek behind a house in Boston Flats, B.C., in the early morning hours of July 10, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/CP Images)

More than 142 wildfires broke out in a single day on July 7, 2017, after a flurry of lightning set fire to forests dried out by a heatwave. The season would go on to become one of the worst in provincial history, with B.C. declaring an emergency because of out-of-control fires.

July 7, 2020, is likely to be different.

"With the moisture in the ground, we're pretty confident at this point that that is not coming in the short-term," said Colman.

Colman said fire prediction officers and meteorologists look at a range of factors to calculate wildfire risk, including vegetation growth, soil moisture, fine fuel dryness and thickness or the depth of fuel. Ideally, June soaks those materials, making it more difficult for fires to spread.

Despite the promising fire outlook, both agencies warn B.C. is far from out of the woods when it comes to extreme weather. The mountain snow pack and spring rain have contributed to flood watches and warnings blanketing the majority of the province. Evacuation alerts and orders are affecting hundreds of people. 

Colman added it would only take another brief heatwave to bake the landscape and revive the fire risk. 

Both said the public needs to remain vigilant and fire smart, despite the reassuringly cool colours on the fire danger map. Fire bans must also be followed.

"We know that the wildfire season and the drought season will eventually catch up and we will see the sparks fly," said Castellan. "Hopefully, they're mostly just naturally fed and not human-caused."

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