After two consecutive record forest fire seasons, B.C. emergency officials are seeing a slow start to the 2019 B.C. wildfire season, with wet conditions in the south and high fire risk only in the remote northwest.
Former B.C. cabinet minister George Abbott’s review of the 2017 fire season was called “Addressing the New Normal” of smoke-filled skies. The report was released last year as a second summer of evacuation alerts and scorched timber gathered steam.
This summer has started with the old normal, weather unpredictability. After a second straight cold winter with lower than average snowpacks, a dry spring has given way to heavy rain across the more populous parts of B.C.
In the Cariboo, the B.C. River Forecast Centre declared a flood warning for the Chilcotin River this week after 90 mm of rain fell in four days. It was the first flood warning issued since January, upending another recent trend of early flooding followed by dry conditions.
Heavy rains also fell through the Prince George area. In the Peace region, the early-season grass and forest fires of previous years were replaced by late-season snow that appeared as late as June.
The total area burned as of this week was just under 120 square km, a tiny fraction of the total from last year at this time. The biggest current B.C. fire, at Alkali Lake near the Yukon border, is actually a cluster of seven deep-burning “holdover” fires from last year’s Telegraph Creek blaze on the east side of the Stikine River.
There has been a scattering of small fires sparked by lightning on Vancouver Island and in the Kootenay region, with thunderstorms often including significant rainfall. Statistics from previous years suggest that if wet weather carries on further into summer, the wildfire window is reduced along with the period for forests to dry out.
Fires and salvage logging have reduced much of the timber killed in B.C.’s latest mountain pine beetle epidemic, with timber harvest reduced from artificially high levels of recent years.
After a recent tour of northern regions affected by forest industry shutdowns, Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad said he observed widespread signs of spruce beetle infestation, with “red attack” and “grey attack” stands visible north of Prince George. That represents a new risk for fast-spreading fires as well as an additional threat to B.C.’s struggling forest products industry.
The province is continuing work on preparations for flooding and forest fires, following the 2018 recommendations from Abbott and former Sto:lo Nation chief Maureen Chapman.
That report focused on fire and flood prevention and preparations, especially improving communications with remote communities. As part of the response, the B.C. government added $31 million to a community emergency preparedness fund for local governments and Indigenous communities, bringing the total funding to $69.5 million.
B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer’s 2018 report on B.C.’s management of climate change risks reinforced the findings of Abbott and Chapman, that intense flood and wildfire seasons will become more common as the climate changes.