It’s still early in the wildfire season and yet B.C. has already eaten through $52.5 million of its $63-million firefighting budget for the year.
The province is parched after an unusually warm winter and a hot, dry spring, raising concerns that this could be a particularly rough season for fires.
B.C.’s annual wildfire budget is based on very conservative estimates, according to fire information officer Ryan Turcot, and the province might be able to offset some of those costs with money recovered by sending crews to other jurisdictions like Alberta.
“We do have the power to spend more than that and we will spend whatever’s necessary to fight the fires,” Turcot said.
This weekend, officials warned that an aggressive wildfire 67 km west of Pemberton could grow as the weather continued to be unseasonably hot and dry. The Elaho fire was estimated at 700 hectares on Sunday and is burning through thick, dry forest on steep, inaccessible terrain.
The fire is now 30 per cent contained, but there’s no rain in the forecast for the area in the next week.
While it’s not really possible to predict how hot and dry this summer will be beyond the next 10 days, a lingering “offshore blob of warmer than normal water” suggests that B.C. will experience above-average temperatures over the next couple of months, according to Environment Canada meteorologist David Jones.
“We’ve had a warmer and drier than average spring, and we had a very unusual winter, a much warmer winter than average. That’s probably related to what’s happening in the Pacific Ocean,” Jones said.
Over the shorter term, he added, “We happen to be right in the midst of what looks like a 10-day stretch of weather that’s going to be essentially hot and dusty in reference to the Interior, and on the coast, hot at times but certainly dry.”
June is normally a wet month for the Kamloops Fire Centre, the busiest wildfire region in the country. This year, there have only been a couple short bursts of rain, according to fire centre manager Murray Henry.
“This sets us up for July and August. If we don’t get the rains, we could be in for a real problem for this fire season,” he said.
But he cautioned against making bold predictions.
“We always say we’ll tell you in October what the fire season’s going to be like, because there’s so many variables.”
So far this year, wildfire crews have already battled two major blazes, near Prince George and Lytton, something that B.C.’s chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek described as abnormal but not unprecedented.
“What’s going to be crucial over the next few weeks is the amount of rainfall,” he said.
More than 450 active wildfires have been reported in B.C. so far this year, compared to 270 by this time in 2014. The Cisco Road (Lytton) and Little Bobtail Lake (Prince George) blazes have helped push the total area burned up to over 600 square kilometres, more than four times the normal total for mid-June.
Meanwhile, B.C.’s rivers have also been affected by the warm and dry conditions.
An early, rapid melt in May decimated the province’s snow pack, leaving an average of just five per cent of the normal amount for this time of year, according to a June 15 bulletin from the River Forecast Centre.
That early melt means that many rivers are now at below-average flows for June, and most rivers on the South Coast, Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii are seeing extremely low levels similar to what’s usually observed in late summer.
“With the emergence of low flow patterns already this season and the forecast for a warmer than normal summer, there is a high risk of extreme low flows this summer,” the bulletin reads.
Preliminary data from some parts of Vancouver Island and the Southern Interior suggest that streamflow levels are close to or even below the lowest recorded numbers for this time of year.