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B.C. warns residents to prepare for 'prolonged wildfire season'

"This is not about making people scared. This is about encouraging people to be prepared," said B.C.'s Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness.

Deep drought conditions are forecast to persist across much of British Columbia, prompting the provincial government to warn of a “prolonged fire season.”

As of March 1, B.C.’s average snowpack was 66 per cent of normal, the second lowest over the past half century, according to the B.C. River Forecast Centre. Low snowpack means less meltwater is available to slow the drying out of forests and temper the risk of wildfire. 

Neal McLoughlin, superintendent of predictive services at the BC Wildfire Service, said with drought and low snowpack locked in, the only factor still up in the air is whether spring rains will come. 

“We should be preparing for a prolonged fire season, even if it doesn't occur,” McLoughlin said at a press briefing Monday. 

Minister of Forests Bruce Ralston said the government is responding to the elevated wildfire threat by securing more equipment and aircraft, stepping up prevention work, and expanding the BC Wildfire Service into a year-round operation. 

He also pointed to new predictive modelling technology announced earlier Monday, which is meant to predict wildfire movement and growth, and is currently being tested in the Coastal and Kamloops Fire Centres.

Ralston also said the province has approved 61 cultural and prescribed burn projects this season, up from 23 burns completed in 2023. Such projects aim to burn excess fuel in forests under controlled conditions and at a relatively low intensity. 

Ministers call on British Columbians to prepare themselves early

Snowpack conditions have improved in some parts of the province. The B.C. River Forecast Centre’s Jonathan Boyd said alpine snowpack that feeds the Fraser River has seen recent bumps in the Lower Fraser and Okanagan regions. But in some parts of the province’s east, snowpack is tracking near record lows. 

Nathan Cullen, Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, said targeted temporary water restrictions may be needed again this season, but remain “a last resort” to ensure enough water for the province’s communities and aquatic ecosystems.

“We are facing a reality that extreme weather events are becoming more regular and more challenging year over year,” Cullen said.

Bowinn Ma, Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, said the B.C. government didn’t want to see a repeat of the summer of 2023 when “extended wait times” were seen at reception centres set up for wildfire evacuees.

She called on residents of the province to create an online profile ahead of time so emergency support services could immediately help individuals through wildfire and drought. Ma also encouraged British Columbians to set aside time over the next couple of weeks to meet as a family and discuss an evacuation plan.

“It used to be the case that we would talk about climate change as though it was something that happened in a far off distant future, something that our children or our grandchildren, or our great grandchildren would have to grapple with. The reality is we are grappling with it right now,” Ma said.

“This is not about making people scared. This is about encouraging people to be prepared.”

Warnings come after warmest Canadian winter on record

The briefing, which was attended by multiple ministers and government experts, comes after a sustained period of warmer than normal temperatures over the fall of 2023 and winter of 2024. 

Last week, climatologists with Environment and Climate Change Canada confirmed Canada has by experienced its hottest winter on record, with average temperatures spiking 1.1 degrees Celsius above the previous record.

The warm winter was the result of a number of factors — including El Niño, warm oceans and climate change — all pulling in the same direction at the same time, said David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada.

“It was like pulling in a tug-of-war but with all the force on one side,” he said. “It is shocking. That isn’t even close to the previous warmest. I get excited by a tenth of a degree. But when the previous one was a whopping 1.1 C cooler? This is astounding. It’s a head-shaker.”

Alyssa Charbonneau, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said that since the fall of 2023, there has been “a widespread precipitation deficit across much of British Columbia,” in particular, the northeast and central parts of the province.

Charbonneau said a swing to La Niña conditions — which tends to bring cooler temperatures — is not expected to impact B.C.’s weather until late 2024. Warmer and drier than normal conditions are forecast to persist until at least June, when the arrival or lack of heavy spring rains could determine just how fast 2024’s wildfire season could escalate, added the meteorologist.

The warnings come as 90 active holdover fires — also known as "zombie fires" — burn across B.C. McLoughlin of the BC Wildfire Service said the most concerning are those that sit on the edges of previous wildfires, where they have the best chance of spreading into unburnt forests.

He said a minimum of 40 millimetres of rain over a two-week period would be required to turn around drought conditions in the drier northern parts of the province. 

“To alleviate those drought values, we're going to have to see continuous and widespread rain,” McLoughlin said. 

Until then, McLoughlin warned residents of the province to avoid sparking human-caused wildfires, which tend to be most common in the spring. If those fires are reduced, it would lessen the burden on firefighters before lightning-ignited wildfires ramp up later in the season.

“Where we typically see lightning is in the months of July and August, we may start to see lightning as early as June,” he said.

Video produced by Alanna Kelly