Unusually hot weather may not mean a summer of flames, expert says
After a cool April across much of British Columbia, the early days of May have brought an abrupt shift to warm weather — and not just warm, but downright hot in some places.
Squamish, for example, hit 30.4 C on May 2, Merritt reached 29 C and Kelowna made it to 26.2 C. In the northern part of the province, Fort St. John recorded a high of 24.2 C, about 11 C higher than the historical average for May 2.
Warming temperatures have coincided with a jump in wildfire activity around the province, with the B.C. Wildfire Service (BCWS) reporting 41 active fires as of May 3.
While the early start to fire season is concerning, it doesn't necessarily mean summer across B.C. will be filled with flames and smoke, according to an expert at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops.
"They're really separate," said Mike Flannigan, research chair for predictive services, emergency management and fire science at TRU.
Speaking with host Shelley Joyce on CBC's Daybreak Kamloops, Flannigan said B.C. is in a "typical spring window," a time period in which fires can easily start. He said "three switches" lead to wildfires this time of year — dry vegetation, ignition sources, and dry, windy weather, particularly if temperatures are high.
Once vegetation greens up, Flannigan said the spring window closes.
"So what happens in spring doesn't really influence what's going to happen in the summer," Flannigan said.
Wildfire of note in northeastern B.C.
Cliff Chapman, director of provincial operations for the B.C. Wildfire Service, told a news conference on May 4 that 131 fires have been recorded in B.C. since January, a little higher than the 10-year average, but the burned area is less than half the average.
Chapman acknowledged that it probably hasn't felt like an average spring for people living in communities where fires have been sparked in recent days.
El Niño could be a factor
For this summer though, Flannigan offered a caveat.
"There are indications that we may have a hot summer," he said. "Generally, hot summers mean more fire activity."
Flannigan noted that the region is coming out of a La Niña oceanic and atmospheric phenomenon that is associated with cooler weather, and moving into an El Niño phenomenon.
"And possibly a moderate to strong El Niño, which generally is hot, dry weather for summer for B.C., especially later in the summer," he said. "So it's a big if, but if that does happen, the conditions could be set up for an active fire season."
June a key month for predicting fire activity later in summer
Tyler Hamilton, a meteorologist with The Weather Network, told CBC that precipitation levels in June are a key indicator of the amount of fire activity that can be anticipated in the peak months of July and August. He said it's too soon to tell how much rain will fall next month.
"Our computer models are not sophisticated enough to really analyze with confidence what the precipitation outlook will be for the month of June," he said. "So that [precipitation amount] will greatly dictate when the wildfire season ultimately starts across the Pacific Northwest."
As for current weather conditions across B.C., Hamilton said a pattern change is on the way as early as Saturday. He said a "cooler flow" is coming from the north and west, "which will really give the fire activity a much-needed break over at least the first couple weeks of May."
B.C. leads country in fire anxiety: study
A new study released this week by First Onsite, an international property and reconstruction company, found that nearly half of Canadians — 46 per cent — are worried about the damage caused by wildfires. The study determined that B.C. leads the country at 76 per cent, followed by Alberta at 55 per cent and Atlantic Canada at 53 per cent.