British Columbia

'It could get much, much worse': Weather could exacerbate B.C. wildfire situation

A confluence of three separate factors has created the 'perfect storm' to ignite British Columbia's vicious wildfire season, experts say — a situation likely to come about more often as annual weather patterns change.

Experts say weather extremes are partly to blame for wildfires throughout the Interior

Tinder dry weather, wind and dry lightning have caused fires to spread aggressively in the province. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

A confluence of factors has created the "perfect storm" to ignite British Columbia's vicious wildfire season, experts say — a situation likely to come about more often as annual weather patterns change. 

Aggressive wildfires have burned more than 236 square kilometres of B.C. so far this year. Of the more than 550 fires the province has seen since April, nearly half were ignited in the last two weeks. 

"It could be a long, hot, smoky summer in British Columbia," said Mike Flannigan, a wildland fire professor at the University of Alberta. 

Flannigan says three key factors are needed for fires to spark: 

  • Hot, dry, windy weather.
  • Fuel, usually in the form of tinder-dry vegetation.
  • Ignition, most often either dry lightning or from human activity like discarded cigarettes. 
A wildfire near Princeton in the B.C. Interior quickly burned through the dry vegetation. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

The wet winter and spring in B.C. didn't hamper the province's fire season this year — in fact, experts say it may have contributed to it.

Fire ecologist Robert Gray says moisture in March in April combined with warmer temperatures to create more vegetation.

In the B.C. Interior, that means mostly shrubs and long grasses that quickly dry into kindling. And then there are all the dead pine trees ravaged by years of pine beetle infestation. 

"Now we have the kind of fuel that makes fires grow very, very fast and very, very big," Gray said. 

'Nothing really we can offer'

Warmer temperatures in the past two weeks alone were enough to dry the grassland out. 

And then came the dry lightning and winds. 

"It's kind of a perfect storm," he said. "So really kind of a bad situation."

Weather forecasts for the Interior aren't making the situation look much better in the short term. 

In the last two years, B.C. spent over $1 billion fighting wildfires that have burned 25,000 square kilometres. (Pete Scobie/CBC)

"From a weather point of view there's nothing really we can offer to help firefighters," said meteorologist Trevor Smith with Environment Canada. 

A dry cold front started moving through the area Sunday evening. It may have brought down the temperature but it also brought along stronger winds and the possibility of more lightning over the next few days.

Smith said longer-range forecasts also show no reprieve — with a return to hot, dry weather. 

'Very chaotic and unpredictable'

Gray and Flannigan said the bigger issue for this year is that this is just the beginning of B.C.'s wildfire season, which usually peaks in July and August. 

"It could get much, much worse," Flannigan said. 

The same factors that have played out this year in B.C. could become a regular feature. 

Gray said weather extremes from season to season — cold, wet winters and scorching hot summers — will be more common in the province. 

"That's going to be the norm," he said. "It's going to be very chaotic and unpredictable."

Lightning sparked hundreds of wildfires in the B.C. Interior. (Tore_greco/Instagram)