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B.C.'s wildfire season off to a slow start but dry conditions worrying

Wildfire forecasters and meteorologists are looking to B.C.'s spring to determine what type of fire season will spark.

Grass fires may be sparking in B.C.'s Interior, but the province remains below average for wildfires this time of year.

There have been 32 wildfires this year so far — down from 54 by this time last year, but the BC Wildfire Service is concerned about dry conditions.

"Those early spring fires — before we've had precipitation — they do ignite, and they can move pretty quickly when that wind shifts," said BC Wildfire Service information officer Karley Desrosiers.

The 10-year average for hectares burnt to date is 1,780. So far, 218 hectares have been claimed this wildfire season, slightly up from 217 last April. 

Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation issued an evacuation alert for Pavilion Indian Reserve 1 on April 18. According to the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, this was the earliest evacuation alert of the year since 2021.

In 2021, the Thompson-Nicola Regional District issued an evacuation alert due to wildfire on April 18 and in 2020, the District of Squamish issued an evacuation alert due to wildfire on April 15.

How severe this fire season could be will depend on June's rainfall.

What needs to happen to have to keep fire risk 'normal'

The burning question on many British Columbians' minds can't be answered yet.

"I am sure a lot of people already want to know what the core of the fire season will look like through July and August, but really our focus at the BC Wildfire Service right now is on the spring burning conditions where we see grass fires and our fine fuels light up," said Matt MacDonald, BC Wildfire Service's lead forecaster.

October's warmer weather created concern for the impact of this spring season. 

"While that might have been nice patio weather, it continued to cur our fuels and deepen our drought conditions," said MacDonald. 

October was four to 10 degrees above average, bringing very little rain in what is usually a wet month.

"The tone for the 2023 fire season really started for us back in the fall of 2022," said MacDonald.

May, June and July are B.C.'s wettest months, and projections show this trend should continue this year.

"This is our wet time of year for many of our interior locations, and right now, this looks to be the most likely scenario," he added. "We should see those drought conditions alleviate and improve." 

Interior is 'extremely' dry right now

Parts of the province remain very dry, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada Meteorologist Derek Lee. 

"There are some spots that are extremely dry in the interior, even heading into April," said Lee. "We haven't seen too many storms come in."

Kamloops had a mere 0.5 mm fall through March, marking the fifth-driest month on record.

"Starting late spring and into the summer season, that is when we expect the precipitation to fall the most for the interior regions," Lee added.

BC Wildfire Service is ready with more full-time staff

As the service has tried to make more year-round positions within the BC Wildfire Service, management feels confident it is ready and prepared for what may come.

Cliff Chapman, BC Wildfire Service director of operations, says they will position crews and aviation resources in challenging locations with the highest likelihood and risk of fires starting.

BC Wildfire Service has 113 full-time members, a new step towards making it a more year-round organization. It has "secured" four more protection units, so more homes and infrastructure can be protected when fires threaten.

"We've also been able to secure two mass water delivery systems, which is something that historically we have always contracted out, and now we have that ability in-house to deploy that resources," said Chapman.

Close to 2,000 BC Wildfire Service personnel will be on the ground, ready to support the province. 

"In addition, we will have 700 contractors at the ready," said Chapman. "We are well positioned organizationally to be ready for the seasons ahead."

Even with all of these contractors and staff, there could be obstacles.

"Whether we have 2,000 or 20,000 resources, we are still going to be challenged in this province," said Chapman.

Be prepared for the worst, hope for the best

Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Bowinn Ma believes the province is equipped to deal with what is ahead this year but asks people to prepare. 

"We cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to extreme weather events," said Ma. "We've seen that extreme heat events are becoming more frequent and projected to become more severe due to climate change. Extreme heat is now a part of our reality, and it is critical that British Columbians understand what it is that they can do to protect themselves and their loved ones."  

She's urging everyone to act now, prepare emergency kits, and protect infrastructure against wildfire risk.

"Let us work together to prepare for the worst, but let us all hope for the best."