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Dry Spring Brings Early Fire Warnings in BC

As the spring thaw continues into the summer, the BC government has warned residents that there will likely be an early start to the 2024 fire season. The prediction is based on many areas across the province not getting as much snowpack as experts prefer to see. A larger snowpack leads to a more gradual, lasting melt, which keeps areas drenched for longer and reduces the risk of forest fires.

Given the light snowpack throughout much of the province, the only saving grace at this point would be a massive rainfall, which experts suggest is unlikely. The conditions expected in many regions are similar to a drought, leaving many large forested areas vulnerable to the consequences.

Based on data from 1991 and 2020, snowpacks across BC are two-thirds the average. The general consensus among climate experts in the area and across Canada is that climate change is responsible for the increased average temperatures across BC through the winter, creating less snowfall and retaining less snow that does fall. Combined with heat coming off the Pacific Ocean, the expectation for this spring and summer is that the province will be warm and dry.

“We pay very close attention and have the BC wildfire app on all of our devices. We also chat a lot in the community, so if anyone hears anything, it gets passed on quickly,” said Cindy Goertzen-Harrison, a resident of the Kootenays in southern BC. Having lived in the area near the US border for six years, she has learned that fires are a regular part of life in the region every summer. So far as she is concerned, she’s better off being prepared than nervous about what could happen.

“We have a bin of clothes and important papers packed and in our closet. Kennels for all the animals, including the chickens, are kept in a known location, as well as boxes of pictures or other must-keep things, kept in an accessible place for easy grab and go. After that packing is based on how much time is available. Vehicles are kept with full tanks of gas, and extra keys, medications, and leashes are ready. We try to be prepared but not paranoid.” 

So far this year, things are looking alright so far as early season fire prevention goes. Atop the mountains in much of the Kootenays remains a dense snowpack which will offer early season protection. There have been fires in the area in years past, and the smoke can sometimes be perpetual.

“The closest fire we have had was 3.2 kilometres away from our home,” Goertzen-Harrison explained. “The fire was on our mountain. Thankfully, the guys in the sky and the firefighters on the ground kept all of us safe.” 

Since moving to the region only six years ago she says there has been a noticeable increase in the rate of fires in the area. While it is important to note this is a small window of time, data from environment Canada and the BC government supports her observations.

“Fire season now starts in April. Human actions are creating fires in areas that are increasingly difficult to access, allowing fires to get bigger faster! Smokers are flicking butts out the window, and ATVs are public enemy numbers one and two. Lightning is scary as well!” 

From year to year there are signs as to what type of fire season it will be. Dry-spells, rainy seasons, high winds or heavy winters all paint a picture of what lay ahead in the summer. Ultimately more residual water and cooler temperatures are key to safe summers. While Cindy works around her property to keep the land watered and prepared for the worst of it, property protection is not her main priority.

“Ultimately, our focus is life safety. We will only save stuff if we can. As long as we are all out, the rest will be fine.” 

Across Canada 

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre National Fire Summary, 6,623 wildfires were reported across Canada last summer. These fires combined to affect 18.5 million hectares of land, making 2023 one of the worst fire seasons on record. This is well above the 10-year average of 5,597 fires in a season, accounting for 2.7 million hectares lost.

Quebec had the greatest total surface area damaged by wildfires, with a whopping 5 million hectares lost in fires. Fires burning in Quebec and Ontario made international headlines as the smoke impacted the skylines of the Eastern United States, clouding the skylines of Manhattan. As the smoke spilled over the border, air pollution warnings were put in effect in many American cities, as was the case in every province at some point last year.

This year, the experts are warning some areas that had a light winter that it could be a long summer ahead. Alberta and Saskatchewan each had light winters compared to what the experts prefer to see, raising some concerns for the months ahead. In other parts of the country, a light winter was interrupted by heavy snowfalls in the latter parts of February, creating lasting snowpacks that will at least push the start of fire season back a little while.

In total, the most fire-prone provinces last year were Quebec, Northwest Territories, Alberta, and BC, in that order. Last year, the trend of increasing temperatures through the summer continued, contributing significantly to the reduction of fires across the country and the ability to manage existing fires. While it is still very early in the year, BC Premier David Eby has said he is “profoundly worried” about the upcoming summer but added that his government is ready to send in the cavalry when the fires come.

“Last year’s wildfire season was the worst in our province’s history, and we know how incredibly difficult it was for everyone,” said Bruce Ralston, BC minister of Forests.

“Our top priority is keeping people safe, which is why we continue to take significant action to prevent and prepare for wildfires as we head into spring and summer. We know the impacts of climate change are arriving faster than predicted. We will keep actioning the recommendations from the expert task force to make sure we are ready for wildfires when and where they happen.”

While he puts on a strong face, many critics argue the BC government simply is not doing enough to prevent the fires from becoming so tragic on an annual basis. Last year, many critics were vocal about preventative measures the government has failed to act on, saying the present strategies of the BC government are simply failing the task of preventing extensive damage from forest fires. While forest fires are often a naturally occurring phenomenon, it is the obligation of the government to maintain their forests in a manner that will not cause towns and villages to be evacuated.

Among suggestions promoted by professionals in the realm are creating fuel breaks in the forests, increasing the diversity, density and age of trees and the use of prescribed burns in forests to reduce fuel for fires. Old, strong biodiverse forests can sometimes withstand brush fires whereas man made forests are not biodiverse enough to prevent the fire from rapidly increasing in size and temperature. 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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