British Columbia

Wildfire forecasts predict hot, dry conditions in B.C. this year

It's still early in the year, but preliminary forecasts from federal government scientists suggest B.C. may be in for another active wildfire season.

Federal scientist says there's no reason to be alarmed, but models suggest conditions conducive to fire

B.C. experienced its worst wildfire season in modern history in 2017. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

It's still early in the year, but preliminary forecasts from federal government scientists suggest B.C. may be in for another active wildfire season.

The Canadian Wildland Fire Information System released its latest seasonal forecasts this week, predicting that most of the southern half of B.C. will be more vulnerable than normal to wildfire throughout June, July and August.

Richard Carr, a fire research analyst with the Canadian Forest Service, said there's no reason to be alarmed, but the current climate models suggest above-average hot and dry conditions in some parts of the province — leaving those regions ripe for wildfire.

"By the time we get into June ... we're starting to pick up on potential problems in the southern half of B.C., kind of extending up to the northeast," he said.

"Without adequate spring precipitation, then we might start to see some drying and fire activity again in June."

A forecast generated in April by the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System shows above-average conditions for wildfire across a wide swathe of Western Canada in July. (Natural Resources Canada)

The wildfire forecasts are created every month, using monthly and seasonal temperature and precipitation forecasts from Environment Canada.

After last year's record-breaking fire season, which saw more of B.C. go up in flames than any other year in recorded history, large portions of the province were already quite dry heading into the winter, according to Carr.

"Some of the regions ... may not receive enough precipitation to moisten the deeper layers of the forest floor," he said.

Still, winter and early spring have been cold and wet across most of the country, which means April should be a pretty quiet month. Carr doesn't expect to see conditions conducive to significant fire activity until May at the earliest, and that would be to the east, in the Prairies and parts of Ontario.

What happens with the weather in May and June will be absolutely crucial for B.C.

"We might have some problems with dry conditions occurring throughout the spring and maybe into the summer without substantial spring precipitation," Carr said.

But he cautions that even if the landscape is particularly vulnerable to fire this summer, that doesn't necessarily mean more fires.

"We can have above-normal potential but no fire. If there's no lightning or humans are careful, then we might not get the fire," Carr said.

The season begins

Wildfire isn't top of mind for a lot of people as winter continues to hold much of the province in its grip.

But while the Lower Mainland was stuck under a rain cloud this week, firefighters near Chase were battling a grassfire that had burned through about 160 hectares. It was the third wildfire of the year and a sure sign that the season is underway.

And some residents of the areas hit hard by last year's wildfires are already asking whether the province is prepared for another season.

Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson told CBC News that he wanted to see more evidence of comprehensive forest management plans meant to prevent catastrophic fires.

"We are now being assaulted by simultaneous, unprecedented events — whether it's pest and disease or fire. That landscape is being changed dramatically and we're not seeing an unprecedented response from the government that's commensurate with the kind of threats that we've got," he said.

Crews tackled a small wildfire near Lytton last month. (Edith Loring-Kuhanga/Twitter)

Forests Minister Doug Donaldson said he appreciated Simpson's passion and agreed that there's still a lot to be done to protect British Columbians from the wildfires of the future.  

"It's going to take a reorientation of the ministry because of what we're seeing on the ground — the size of the fires and fire behaviour," Donaldson told CBC News.

He added that the province has added $50 million to his ministry's budget over the next three years to help communities become more "fire resilient." 

The province is in the midst of an independent review of the response to last year's wildfires and floods. Provincewide consultations with communities affected by the natural disasters began in January.

With files from Audrey McKinnon

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay has more than a decade of experience in B.C. journalism, with a focus on the courts, health and social justice issues. She has also reported on human rights and crimes against humanity in Cambodia. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.