Raindrops on a leaf

Precipitation could still alter wildfire season severity: gov

Editor’s note: According to the provincial government’s March 8 Snow Conditions and Water Supply Bulletin, Vancouver Island has only 46% of its normal snowpack. Across the Salish Sea in the South Coast Basin, the snowpack is at 40%. While this does not sound good for Cortes and other Discovery Islands, which are just on the Vancouver Island side of these two areas, the following article states that Spring rains could make a big difference in what our summer looks like.  

By Abigail Popple, The Rocky Mountain Goat, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Despite the low snowpack that B.C. has seen this winter, it’s still too early in the year to determine whether drought will make the coming fire season more intense, experts say.

The Ministry of Water, Lands and Resource Stewardship released its monthly Snow Survey and Water Supply Bulletin on Friday. While storms during the last week of February brought the heaviest snowfall B.C. has seen this season, snowpack in the Upper Fraser East region – which encompasses the Robson Valley area – fell from 61 per cent of normal to 52 per cent of normal.

“Snow plays a non-negligible role in keeping soils and forest fuels moist in the spring, and a low snow year can yield an early start to the drying (curing) of those fuels,” Environment and Climate Change Canada meteorologist Armel Castellan wrote in an email to The Goat. However, he clarified that springtime precipitation will play an important role in determining the intensity of wildfire season.

Castellan pointed to the spring of 2019, which was forecasted to be warmer than the two previous years. Meteorologists at the time were concerned that the fire season would be more intense than 2017 and 2018 – both of which broke records, with over 12,000 hectares of land burned each year. Ultimately, month-long rains through late June and July of 2019 alleviated these concerns, he said.

“This was an example of how despite a warmer than normal seasonal forecast, precipitation can play an important role in shaping the wildfire season during the summer months,” Castellan said. “To couple a warmer signal to a drier one in the same statement is a common oversimplification – these conditions do not always occur simultaneously.”

At a press conference regarding the March 1st Snow Survey and Water Supply Bulletin, head of the BC River Forecast Centre Dave Campbell said that it is too early to tell how low snowpack will affect soil conditions.

“Even with the low snowpack, we’ll still be going through a period of spring freshet,” he said. “That snow’s going to melt, that’s going to contribute a lot of water onto the landscape […] there is a cycle that needs to take place as we go through the spring before we get into those areas where we’re going to see dry ground conditions.”

A statement sent to The Goat by the Prince George Fire Centre echoed these conclusions.

“Snowpack levels are one means of forecasting whether we’ll see an early or late start to the fire season,” the Centre wrote. “The intensity of the fire season, however, is more dependent on precipitation levels and drying patterns as we move into summer. We’re too far off to provide reliable predictions at this time.”

Wildfire prep

In preparation for the wildfire season, the BC Wildfire Service shifted to a six-month-long rolling application model. This allowed local teams to begin interviews with candidates earlier than ever, according to the Province. The Prince George Fire Centre is in the midst of its annual recruiting cycle.

“We maintain full time staff at Fire Zone offices throughout the year, including the Robson Valley,” said the Prince George Fire Centre’s statement. Seasonal staff are starting to return, but the Centre has not been recalling staff early. Fire crews will be complete around mid-May, once new-recruit boot camps have finished, according to the statement.

The BC Wildfire Service will continue to monitor soil moisture and fine fuel dryness as it prepares for wildfire season, the statement said, adding that the low snowpack and warm winter suggest that this spring will be warmer and drier than usual. Still, spring weather may bring more rain and soil moisture, as has happened in previous years, it said.

“It is too early to say if the whole 2024 fire season will remain the same, since we can’t rule out the possibility of precipitation to temper the summer season.”

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Top image credit: After the rain – Photo by Karel Macalik via Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

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